Housing is (Not) a Human Right

One of the more popular ways for progressive candidates to excite a crowd or for pro-housing advocates to frame their arguments is to assert “Housing is a human right.” We should stop saying this, and call out candidates when they say it. It’s a lie. Housing isn’t a human right—at least not in practice.

I know this because we prioritize single family zoning over construction of enough housing for everyone, and single family zoning certainly isn’t a human right.  A human right can’t be less important than a not-right, or the entire concept of human rights has no meaning; trust me on that, I’m a lawyer, and have the student loans to prove it.  Anyone want to step up and argue that single family zoning is a right? The ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt would like a word with you.

If housing were a human right we’d prioritize more housing over single family zoning.

If housing were a human right we’d want more housing even if for-profit developers made a profit (if for some reason you thought that were a bad thing).

If housing were a human right we’d allow more housing away from our most hazardous and polluted streets and into our neighborhood interiors.

If housing were a human right we wouldn’t require parking minimums.

If housing were a human right we’d build our values by building more housing.

Claiming that housing is a human right and then shying away from standing up to neighborhood organizations (or single family homeowners or would-be revolutionaries) who oppose upzoning is like claiming freedom of speech is a human right and then demurring when asked about banning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian because the PTA doesn’t like it. The PTA doesn’t get to decide who deserves rights any more than neighborhood organizations do.

I wish we treated housing were a human right, and that homelessness and unaffordability meant we were willing to build our cities in a way that made affordable housing available to everyone. I expect this is what many people who say, “Housing is a human right” mean: we should have affordable housing for everyone. It’s what I meant when I said it. But too many people use “Housing is a human right” as a shield against having to engage with specific housing policies. If a slogan provides cover for avoiding hard discussions about how to move forward it’s better we stop using the slogan and demand candidates confront the real trade-offs inherent in policy; force them to reconcile their stated beliefs with their proposed policies.

As an example: I understand that not everyone, even those who say that housing is a human right, will agree that upzoning is a key element of any housing affordability strategy. But if we agree that housing is a human right, we can have a real discussion about how to best reify that right and use data and statistics.

But recognizing that housing is a human right makes certain arguments off limits. You can’t argue about shade or that developers will make money or about neighborhood character or that it isn’t housing for the right people (“who are we building housing for?”) or that you want to do other things for affordability instead or that the increase in affordability won’t be enough or it’s only a long-run solution or that it’s not a panacea.

You have to argue that adding more market rate housing will not make housing more affordable when compared to the counterfactual under which no upzoning occurs. You have to make the argument that vacancy rates don’t affect housing prices and artificially limiting supply doesn’t affect prices.

If you can’t make that argument you only have to ask yourself one question: is housing a human right?

Zachary Wefel

About Zachary Wefel

Former candidate for Minneapolis Ward 1 City Council, lawyer at Wefel Law Firm PLLC, and co-founder of the Minnesota Tool Library. Follow me on Twitter @zacharywefel.