Will California Guarantee Housing as a Right? Here's How the Pandemic Is Shaping the Debate

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Tents line Fulton Street near San Francisco City Hall on May 5, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California’s housing crisis is driving state lawmakers to think big. One question they’re considering: How can the Golden State guarantee housing as a right? This week, state legislators looked at two different approaches that tackle the legal right to housing and how the coronavirus pandemic is shaping the debate.

A Right to Housing for Families and Children

A California bill to create a “right to housing” mandate for families and children easily passed out of the Housing and Community Development committee on Wednesday.

Assembly Bill 2405, introduced by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Inglewood, would declare a right to housing and force state agencies to house children and families at risk of falling into homelessness. The state would need to provide rental assistance, eviction defense or emergency shelter.

Burke’s legislation specifically focuses on children and families, which she says was inspired by her legislative work on child poverty. Her research led her to the idea that a right to housing was essential to halting the cycle of poverty for California families.

Her bill is a revived version of Assembly Bill 22, which died in the Appropriations Committee earlier this year. The current legislation does not include an estimate of the potential cost for carrying out a right to housing, something that could prove difficult in a state that is grappling with a massive housing shortage and a homeless population of about 150,000.

After introducing her bill to the committee Wednesday, Burke added that the coronavirus pandemic “has created a realization of how many families are truly one paycheck away from being homeless.”

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, and the chair of the Housing Committee, has signed on as a co-author for the new bill. Chiu said addressing housing was already a top priority this year, but the coronavirus pandemic has only made it more urgent.

“It's the moral thing to do. It's a humane thing to do. It's also, during this pandemic, the right thing to do for public health,” Chiu said.

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Amending the Constitution on Hold for Now

Another bill that would have taken the idea of a right to housing even further didn’t make the cut.

The proposal from Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, would have encoded housing as a human right in the state’s constitution.

Last week, Bonta introduced the constitutional amendment, the Housing is a Human Right Act, that would “ensure access to adequate housing for all Californians.”

“I believe we need to do something that meets the problem in scope and scale and in boldness,” Bonta said.

A constitutional amendment has been in the works for months after conversations began in February between Bonta's office and Moms 4 Housing, a group of homeless women and children who took over a vacant home in West Oakland to protest investors driving up home prices and leaving properties empty amid a homeless crisis.

Carroll Fife, the director of Oakland’s Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a nonprofit that helped organize Moms 4 Housing, says their call to action has only grown louder amid the pandemic.

“Out of all of the things that we have to worry about in the world, the primary need for shelter — for safe, dignified shelter — should not be one of the things that keep you up at night,” Fife said.

Other advocates for housing as a human right lauded Bonta’s proposal as an important step toward meeting California’s housing crisis.

“For too long we've known that housing hasn't been recognized as a human right and certainly hasn't been implemented as a human right,” said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

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Tars has spent much of his career researching housing and human rights law, and believes a legal right to housing is critical to address California’s affordability crisis and growing homeless population.

“Nobody's being held accountable, and people keep kicking the can down the road and the situation keeps getting worse,” Tars said. “By making housing a human right, it means the state can't just do nothing. They have to be taking steps to move things forward.”

But faced with a massive budget deficit and a shortened session, California lawmakers say their timelines have shifted. Fewer hearings means less room for discussing big ideas like the human right to housing.

“And this constitutional amendment deserves robust discussion, massive input and expertise from different sectors and areas to help get it right,” Bonta said.

Bonta's proposal isn’t going away, and he hopes to have it considered in the next session with an eye towards getting on it the ballot before California voters in 2022.