- What’s the Problem & How are Progressives Addressing It
Progressive policy on housing has moved toward establishing housing a right. Although conceptualizing housing as a right may seem radical, it has widespread recognition. The United Nations recognized the right to housing in 1948, in Article 5 of the Declaration of Human Rights, and in 1976 the United Nations International Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights identified seven components that comprise the right to housing, including (1) legal security of tenure, (2) availability of services, (3) affordability, (4) habitability, (5) accessibility, (6) location, and (7) cultural adequacy.
In the United States, the American Housing Act of 1949 established a goal of “a decent home and suitable living arrangement for every American family,” but failed to make housing a right. Although housing is a critical component of economic, social, and health equity, we remain in an ongoing housing crisis. The US homeownership rate has failed to fully recover from the housing crisis, and in 2016 only 62.9% households owned their own home, the lowest level of homeownership in the US since 1965. Racial discrepancies in homeownership remain significant: 72% of white non-Hispanic households own their own home in 2017, compared to just 41% of Black households, 47% of Hispanic households, 60% of Asian, 41% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander households, and 54% of American Indian and Native Alaskan Households. For most homeowners, the primary residence is the largest asset they have, meaning that racialized housing inequalities are directly translated into racial wealth inequalities.
Ownership is just one component of our housing problem. Residential segregation in America remains as bad today as it was before the Fair Housing Act supposedly outlawed housing discrimination in 1968. Housing affordability remains critical issues facing our communities: 50% homeowners earning less than $50,000 per year spend 30% or more of their annual income on housing, and 73.7% of renters at the same income level spend 30% or more of their annual income on housing. Housing is also a major determinant of health, and the physical condition of a person’s home and the quality of the social and physical environment in which it is located impact physical and mental health, especially for young children.
- Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms
This right to housing and shelter can be realized through policies such as rent regulation, social housing, public housing, and by mandating all new residential development projects to include a significant component of mixed-income housing. Rent regulation, or rent control, is a mild form of regulation. Rent regulation sets rent increases set at particular rates, and gives tenants the right to receive certain services, to have their leases renewed if they request, and to not be evicted except on grounds defined by law. Social housing policies focus on creating housing systems that prioritize the wellbeing and security of residents and that are not owned or operated for the purpose of making a profit. Types of social housing include public housing, where federal, state or local government own the property, but also resident-controlled limited-equity cooperatives, deed-restricted housing held by community land trusts, and nonprofit-developed affordable housing. Social housing may exist in many forms, with “a range of control that looks at both resident participation in management and community participation in siting, design, and development; and a range of financing that makes housing more or less dependent on public, social, or private capital funds and at times private capital markets.”
Mixed-use and mixed-income development policies represent another approach to increasing the affordable housing supply. Mixed-income housing development policies mandate that for every market-rate housing unit developers build, they must also build a certain amount of affordable housing units where rents will be capped, and to enter a covenant binding the developer and any future owners to keep rents for the designated affordable units affordable rates, either for the life of the development or for a fixed number of years. Mixed-use development is similar: in mixed use schemes, developers seeking to build valuable commercial properties must also agree to build a certain number of affordable housing units, again with binding covenants to keep them affordable long-term.
In some jurisdictions, municipal control of the zoning and development process puts very powerful levers in the hands of local communities. Unfortunately, in some cases, state and federal laws may interfere with local municipalities’ ability to implement or maintain rent regulation, social housing, or mixed use and mixed income housing. Please see the ProGov21 Policy Roadmap on Home Rule to learn more about protecting local initiatives from state or federal interference.
- Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them
The challenges to securing all Americans the right to shelter and housing are primarily driven by a vision of growth and development divorced from equity. Housing developments that focus on the very top of the market are more profitable for developers, and many cities are eager to gentrify their communities and swell their tax base. The flipside to gentrification and luxury development is disinvestment from areas that working people can affordable: absentee landlords who do not see the communities as valuable are unwilling to spend the money to keep their properties safe and inhabitable without significant pressure from tenants or local governments.
Local groups that want to advance the recognition of housing as a human right can start by working towards resolutions stating that their municipality recognizes this right and endorses the international standards put forward by the UN. Frequently, these start as non-binding resolutions, but they can develop into more: the ProGov21 Database contains many such local initiatives, including one from Madison WI, that later became the basis for $8 million in affordable housing investments. Advocates can also use these international standards to measure local rights violations. It is important for elected officials and government employees to hear constituents articulate housing as a right and demand policies that reflect this framing. It may be helpful to start with the New Deal and other policies that have set up universal access to high quality housing as a goal, and to reference polling data that shows 85% of Americans believe “that ensuring everyone has a safe, decent, affordable place to live should be a ‘top national priority.’
California is currently a hotbed of housing reform. In Los Angeles, Ballot Initiative JJJ passed in 2016, establishing that all developments of 10 or more housing units that required zoning adjustments had to have a certain percentage of affordable housing units or pay into a fund devoted to affordable housing development and enforcement of rent regulation. Developers were also required to replace any existing affordable housing units lost as a result of construction, either by building units on-site, at another location, or by paying into the city fund for affordable housing development. Initiative JJJ also sought to overlay affordable housing and access to transportation by allowing developers to build more densely (and hence more profitably) near existing transit hubs. Lastly, Initiative JJJ also mandated fair wages for workers and required a good-faith effort to hire 30% local workers including 10% transitional workers who face barriers to employment. See the ProGov21 Policy Roadmap on Anchor Institutions and Employment for more on local employment mandates and building high-road capitalism.
- Taking it to the Next Level
To maximize the benefits of housing, housing must be planned and built together with transportation, recreational opportunities, access to high-quality food, and sources of employment. We also must house the homeless rather than incarcerating them, which both saves municipalities money and helps reduce homelessness long-term. Policies must also be enacted to make it easier for renters to vote. The links here represent only a few of the resources available at ProGov21.org.
- Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations
A number of groups do critical work on housing. For more resources, make sure you examine the work done by The Osborne Association, The Fortune Society, and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.