Recognizing the Right to Housing: Why We Need a Human Right to Housing in California

California is at the epicenter of houselessness crisis in the United States. Over half of the nation’s unsheltered people and a quarter of all unhoused people live in California, despite the fact that California residents make up only 12% of the nation’s population. This is largely due to the state’s skyrocketing housing costs, lack of affordable housing, and stagnating wages. The burdens of California’s affordable housing shortage and resulting houselessness crisis raise grave humanitarian concerns and fall disproportionately on Black and Brown residents.

As this report demonstrates, enshrining a fundamental right to housing in the California Constitution is a necessary step to effectively address the growing housing crisis at the state level. Guaranteeing every person the right to housing provides an important government obligation and legal tool to ensure that Californians have access to affordable and adequate housing. This rights-based approach is supported by a rich body of international human rights law and will bolster California’s existing Housing First policy, based on decades of empirical evidence that houselessness is most effectively remedied by access to permanent and stable housing, with minimal requirements for entry.

Read the full report here.

The report notes that the notion of housing as a fundamental human right is not new. President Roosevelt introduced the idea of a right to a “decent home” in his 1944 State of the Union address, and in 2020, President Biden ran on a platform that “[h]ousing should be a right, not a privilege.” At the international level, the United Nations (“UN”) recognizes housing as a human right that is essential to human dignity and to maintaining an adequate standard of living. Finland’s approach to houselessness provides an illuminating case study; the country 6 enshrined a right to housing in its constitution over twenty years ago and has seen a steady decline in the number of people experiencing houselessness and an increase in the availability of affordable housing. This report draws from these international principles and models upon which California can build to realize a meaningful right to housing.

California legislators have introduced constitutional amendment proposals that would enumerate the right to housing in the state constitution. As detailed in the report, a constitutional right to housing would establish a legal mechanism to hold local and state governments accountable for ensuring that all Californians have access to affordable and adequate housing. Modeled after international law, a constitutional amendment would establish a government obligation to:

  • (1) respect the right to housing by not interfering with the right;
  • (2) protect the right to housing by shielding the enjoyment of affordable and adequate housing from third-party threats; and
  • (3) fulfill the right to housing by affirmatively enacting policies and budgetary allocations to ensure that all Californians have secure housing.

A right to housing is not limited to merely having a roof over one’s head. Among other things, housing should be permanent, affordable, safe, healthy, and accessible to resources like grocery stores, jobs, and schools. Under international law, housing must be “adequate,” which consists of seven elements:

  • (1) security of tenure;
  • (2) availability of services;
  • (3) affordability;
  • (4) accessibility;
  • (5) habitability;
  • (6) location; and
  • (7) cultural adequacy.

Under this model, the right to housing obligates our state and local governments to work “progressively” toward that goal by enacting relevant policies and budgetary allocations to the “maximum available resources.” This means the government must make all possible efforts to raise as many resources as possible for housing, without undermining the long-term viability of the economy. Further, the right to housing must be implemented equitably and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex/gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, disability, economic status, or other protected categories.

Drawing from this framework, the report provides concrete policy recommendations that state legislators and local officials can take to ensure that every Californian has access to adequate housing as a human right. It is clear that Californians support this approach.

A 2020 poll showed that 66% of all Californians support a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing the human right to housing.

California voters have approved more than 500 constitutional amendments, including adding new fundamental civil rights, and legislators have enacted new rights-based laws in a variety of areas. For example, under California’s right to education, the government must provide equal access to public education and the right requires state and local governments to fund public schools. Another comparable right is California’s right to water statute, which requires consideration of the human right to water by government agencies when making decisions related to water access. These rights provide important precedents for a right to housing.

Rights are different from policies because they receive more protection from courts and are harder to take away. Recognizing a right to housing is essential to meaningfully address the housing crisis. Such a right is a guarantee that Californians’ housing security is protected from the whims and uncertainties of politics, the charitable sector, or the private market.

In order to address the humanitarian crisis of houselessness in our state, California must recognize a constitutional right to housing. Policy that is not backed by an enumerated right has long proven insufficient, and Californians experiencing housing insecurity and houselessness suffer daily injustice without the protection of a right to housing. International bodies and American politicians alike have acknowledged that a rights-based framework is an essential step, and it is time for the state of California to lead the nation in recognizing a human right to housing.

Read the full report here.

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