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.

17 thoughts on “Housing is (Not) a Human Right

  1. Monte Castleman

    It’s important to note the distinction between negative rights and positive rights. Traditionally human rights have been looked at as reigning in the excesses of government, the so called negative rights The government may not tell you what you can say or print. The government may not seize your gun. The limits of these rights are where they harm other people, like blockading a freeway, yelling “fire” in a theater, or libel and slander.

    Positive rights are different in that they obligate the government to actually provide a good or service rather than just staying out of your business. Besides housing, healthcare is a big one. But where does that stop? Is food a right? Transportation? Safety? Drinking water? Maybe you don’t want 10 different private companies providing water service to a city, but just because the city does it is it a fundamental right?

    The other problem with providing positive rights is we don’t really have an enforcement mechanism. The court can strike down laws that infringe on negative rights, like the Chicago and DC handgun bans, but they can’t force the government to do something. If they government simply doesn’t provide healthcare or drinking water, there’s no law that the courts can strike down to force the government to do so.

    1. Morgan Bird

      What does any of that have to do with Zach’s argument? Restrictive zoning is the government actively preventing people from building enough housing, or violating a negative right to housing. I don’t think he even touched on the positive right version, i.e. public or subsidized housing. When the government restricts housing supply with R1 or R2 housing across most of the city there isn’t even a negative right to housing much less a positive one.

    2. Jeremy

      I believe the more accurate legal term for these two categories is “rights to be left alone” and “rights to be taken care of.”

  2. Barry LeBlanc

    If housing were a human right we’d allow more housing away from our most hazardous and polluted streets and into our neighborhood interiors. Yes In Richfield we want to build a affordable housing unit next to a Auto paint shop and overlooking a storage unit to 494…with 78th street for the the North Tear Drop…Why wont Edina build affordable-work force housing?

  3. Ben

    Where is the logic imperative upon whether housing is classified in the US as a privileged, not a right? The last time I’d check with the US Fair Housing laws, everyone on the basis of sex, disability, race and class are free from discrimination. That means the federal government has the right to regulate the housing market under the commerce clause in Article 1, Section 8 in the US Constitution. And yet, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development was specifically designed as an agency to provide housing resources to disadvantaged citizens who are otherwise left out to have a stable roof over their heads. In fundamental disagreement with Zachary Wefel statement about housing, federal laws and the US Constitution gives full guarantee of all American citizens the right to have shelter as a mean of promoting the nation’s general welfare and safety. That includes the (legal) concept that housing is considered a human right, not a luxury commodity.

      1. Ben

        Nice when progressives simply don’t care about affordable housing being built near desirable communities with public transportation, parks, decent libraries, and schools.

        1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

          Um, this article presumes housing is a human right, and then goes on to show how our current policies including zoning are actively working against that right. I think the author of the article was actually making your point.

  4. Carolyn spencer

    Living in valuable urban areas is NOT A RIGHT. IF U CANT AFFORD TO LIVE IN MANHATTAN U SHOULDNT BE ABLE TO. Move to the Bronx or someplace else. Why should I pay $10k I property taxes and park on the street while low life affordables get free rent and assigned parking???? Housing is NOT A RIGHT!!!!

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      Getting a veto over how neighbors use the land they own is a constitutional right, it’s in the Declaration of Independance and Magna Carta.

    2. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

      If you can’t afford a garage for your car, maybe you shouldn’t be able to park.

    3. Ben

      Then maybe everyone should be living in the streets just like in LA on skid row. In reality terms, housing is considered a human right. Even the US federal laws regarding Fair Housing say that on record, and judicial courts have upheld those laws to prevent discrimination from happening.

  5. jackie moore

    Housing needs to be a human right. People need to live somewhere. Maybe not in your private community, but somewhere close to transportation, retail and jobs.

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