A Brief Case for Guaranteed Housing

Why housing should be a human right.

Dayton Martindale

(Terry La Ban)
right to hous•ing


1. A guarantee that everyone recieves adequate shelter

2. A necessary component of the right to a[n adequate] standard of living,” say the bleeding hearts behind the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights

It doesn’t make any difference what else you have: If you don’t have some place to rest your head, you’re in bad shape.” —Malcolm X, in a speech in Harlem

Doesn’t housing everyone seem expensive?

It would actually be cheaper than paying for the social services, healthcare and other costs associated with the homelessness crisis. In fact, Utah’s Housing First” program has found it saves money by simply providing shelter. Besides, the money’s there: The U.S. spends several times more on tax breaks and benefits for high-end private developers than it does on low-income housing. As of 2015, Chicago’s city housing authority sat on a surplus of $379 million. What’s lacking is the political will to treat housing as a right rather than a reward.

OK, but is homelessness really a crisis”?

On a single January night last year, 553,742 people in the United States were homeless. Roughly 3 million Americans — 1 in 100 people — experience homelessness over the course of a year. Since the early 1990s, around 20 percent of subsidized, government-owned housing has been demolished. Much public housing has been privatized, and what remains can be hard to get, plagued by long waitlists and barred to those with criminal convictions.

Let me guess — Sweden does it better?

Yes, more than half of that country’s renters live in municipally owned housing. This includes middle-class Swedes, which creates broad buy-in, reduces stigma and brings us closer to a world where a roof over one’s head doesn’t depend on market vagaries. But it’s not just Scandinavia: South Africa guarantees housing in its constitution (though implementation remains flawed); Hong Kong builds public housing at a higher rate than private, and around half of its citizens live in goverment-owned or subsidized homes; Vienna owns a quarter of the city’s housing stock, a legacy of the city’s socialist days in the 1920s and 1930s. And Jeremy Corbyn just pledged that if Labour takes power, the U.K. will buy homes for those without.

Could the U.S. ever get there?

Organizers around the country are advancing measures like Just Cause eviction and rent control that empower renters to stay put, as well as calling on cities to subsidize public housing rather than luxury condos. Some progressives help squatters find and occupy vacant homes. Nationwide, about 225 community land trusts with a combined 35,000 units are taking housing off the market and putting it under community control.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of housing, see, Landlords, Your Lease Is Up: A New Movement for Rent Control Is Spreading Across the U.S.,” An Affordable Housing Movement Is Rising from the Wreckage of the Foreclosure Crisis​” and You’re Taking Our Homes’: Ben Carson Shouted Down by Angry Chicago Residents.”

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Dayton Martindale is a freelance writer and former associate editor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Journal, Harbinger and The Next System Project. Follow him on Twitter: @DaytonRMartind.

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