What Would 'Housing as a Human Right' Look Like in California?

4 min
Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Supporters of Moms 4 Housing rally in front of the West Oakland house the group occupied for several months before being forcefully evicted in January. A community land trust has since agreed to purchase the house and allow the women move back in. (Molly Solomon/KQED)

Activists with a group of women that took over a vacant house in Oakland want to make the protest chant, ‘housing is a human right’ a reality by changing the California constitution.

The group, Moms 4 Housing, is having preliminary conversations with East Bay Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta to introduce legislation that would “establish a fundamental human right to housing,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, an attorney representing the group. Details about what exactly would be in the proposed legislation or when it would be introduced are still being worked out, she said.

The phrase has recently been on the lips of housing justice activists and some local lawmakers, especially after Dominique Walker and other mothers facing homelessness in November occupied the West Oakland house, which is owned by a Southern California-based real estate investment firm.

“We believe that housing is a human right and we’re going to fight for that,” said Walker, a founder of the group Moms 4 Housing.

The rallying cry is both protest and petition in a bid to urge government leaders and corporations to address the widening equity gap in housing and provide for people forced to live in shelters, on the streets or in overcrowded homes.

What Does 'Housing as a Human Right' Mean?

Most advocates for tenants rights and homeless people believe housing is essential, much like food or water. “It has to begin with the recognition of what it takes to be a human being,” said Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center and longtime defender of people experiencing homelessness.

“If someone has a right to life, someone has a right to what is required to live that life,” Neumann said. “And housing, shelter is certainly one of those things.”

The United Nations identifies adequate housing as a fundamental human right, defining it as “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” It further clarifies these rights to include security of tenure, adequate conditions, protection against forced evictions and access to affordable housing, according to the UN's International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

A right to adequate housing is not a requirement that states build free housing for the entire population, said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Rather, he said, it devotes resources and protective measures to prevent homelessness, discrimination and promote permanent stable housing. That could take the form of more public housing and vouchers, incentives to develop affordable housing, rent control and inclusionary zoning.

“What that looks like at the local level is a lot of things that our country is doing already, but it needs to be brought to a fuller scale,” Tars said.

Tars has spent most of his career researching housing and human rights law, and said it will take a bold move, like a legal right to housing, to address the country’s affordability crisis and growing homeless population. And time and political pressure is needed to shift housing policy at a local and national level toward a rights-based paradigm.

related coverage

“I'm hopeful that we're laying the rhetorical framework to envision housing as a right so that we can then build the political momentum to actually implement it,” Tars said.

Recognizing a legal or human right to housing could give advocates, tenants and people experiencing homelessness a tool to hold landlords legally responsible for spiking rents high or to sue cities that are not building sufficient affordable housing.

But enforcing a right to housing would also be difficult given the high cost of affordable housing production, especially in a region as pricey as the San Francisco Bay Area. And it also runs contrary to America's longstanding capitalist approach to using housing and property as a market-influenced commodity.

“The right to housing in this society comes when you have the money,” Neumann said. “If you don't show them the money, you don't have a right to housing.”

Is This a New Idea?

Although it might seem like a new idea, the concept of housing as a human right was actually considered as federal policy in the aftermath of the Great Depression. In his 1944 State of the Union address, with the world still at war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a “Second Bill of Rights,” an effort to further address the rampant poverty and income inequality that still besieged millions of Americans. That included the right for every American, regardless of “station, race, or creed” to have “a decent home.”

Roosevelt made the case for these economic rights not just as a matter of fairness, but also one of national security.

“All of these rights spell security,” said Roosevelt in his address. “America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

“He recognized even back then that the national security and economic security were intimately integrated,” Tars said.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed to lead the Commission on Human Rights and played a key role in drafting the adoption of the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But in the landmark 1949 Housing Act, part of President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal, the notion of housing as a right was framed only as a goal, not a mandate.


Housing rights' policy discussions went dark for years during the Cold War when discussion of economic and social justice issues could get someone branded as a communist, said Tars. Later, during the civil rights movement, groups like the NAACP began using a universal human rights framework as a tool to fight Jim Crow racism, violence and segregation against African Americans.

“That's part of why we want to use the language of human rights and the human rights framework to talk about this,” Tars said. “These are our fellow human beings and everybody deserves to be able to live with dignity.”

Have Any Countries Adopted Right to Housing Policies?

France, Scotland and South Africa have all included a right to housing in their constitutions or enacted similar legislation. In 2003, Scotland passed a comprehensive housing law that mandated local governments to find permanent housing for all homeless individuals within 90 days.

A handful of small local governments in the U.S. have also adopted related measures, including Dane County in Wisconsin, where a resolution was passed in 2012 acknowledging a right to housing.

Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner says the board has used this language to budget for homeless services, create an affordable housing fund and open the county’s first homeless navigation system. “If we don't say it in that language, if we don't frame it in that way, it really loses a sense of urgency,” she said.

But right to housing laws in the U.S. are rare; some local governments have instead adopted a “right to shelter,” including Massachusetts, Washington, D.C. and New York. Critics, however, say a right to shelter doesn’t go far enough and simply brings homeless people indoors to stay in temporary shelters.

How Might it Work in California?

California lawmakers are considering potential policies, including amending the state Constitution that would create a legally enforceable mandate to reduce the state’s massive unsheltered homeless population of more than 108,000.

“It’s the number one political and quality-of-life issue in our state, and yet everything we do is optional,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, co-chair of the Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, a 13-member task force appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In a report released last month, the task force urged the governor to consider legally obligating cities and counties to make progress toward housing their unsheltered residents or face a penalty. Steinberg said he personally believes that housing is a human right, but said the state will have to do something beyond a declaration.

“Symbolism is important. It can help drive the debate and it can help change the agenda,” he said. “But if it isn't accompanied by an actual law that makes it so, then housing might be a human right in California, but in name only.”

Earlier this year, an effort led by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Inglewood, to adopt legislation that would mandate a right to housing for California children and families died in committee in January. Burke said she plans to reintroduce a similar bill by the end of this month.

In their monthslong occupation of the West Oakland home, Moms 4 Housing activists effectively amplified the concept of housing as a human right, using it as a moral argument for why they should be allowed to live there.

Shortly after being evicted by heavily armed sheriff's deputies in January, the group announced it had reached an agreement with the property owner, Wedgewood Inc., to purchase the home through a local land trust.

But members of the group argue that saving one house is not enough; they want to use the momentum they’ve built to start a larger movement, such as changing the state Constitution to include housing as a human right.

A constitutional amendment would require approval from two-thirds of both legislative houses by June 25 to be placed on the November ballot. If approved by voters, California would make history as the first state to declare housing as a human right.