Right to Housing

Agenda Item 1: Right to Housing

The Problem:

Today, federal policy creates inequities by providing more funding for wealthy homeownership than for affordable and supportive housing. Federal policy also incentivizes viewing housing as a commodity through the capital gains exemption. These policies create problems in gentrifying neighborhoods by causing housing prices to spiral and preventing the supply of affordable housing from growing.

The Agenda:

Establishing a right to housing in the U.S. constitution would help address housing problems by providing a framework to reform current housing policy so that it benefits everyone equitably. Discussion of such a right is not new - a right to decent housing was declared in 1944 by Franklin D Roosevelt in his “Second Bill of Rights” and 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that declared housing a human right. However, this right must be reestablished in contemporary policy. Securing a right to housing along the lines of The United Nations model will provide vulnerable populations with the ability to greater shape change by being able to resist coercion, afford price increases, and better find adequate, alternative housing. This model states that all people have a right to housing that is secure, affordable, safe, and in a reasonable location. The implementation of this right will also provide an requirement for the federal government to increase limited funding cities have to tackle the housing pressures of today and of the future.

Getting it Done:

A right to housing would change current spending patterns to increase funding for affordable housing and reduce forces that drive up costs. One way of doing this is reforming the mortgage interest deduction (MID). At a cost of $77 billion in 2016, the MID is one of the most prominent government housing subsidies for the wealthy. The National Low Income Housing Coalition proposes capping eligible mortgage dollars at $500,000 and changing the deduction to a 15% credit. This would save the federal government $241 billion dollars over 10 years which could be reinvested in funding for increasing the affordable supply, increasing the number of vouchers, or increasing rents eligible for voucher use. Money saved could also be allocated toward a renters' tax credit. These actions would reduce the forces that drive up price and ensure that underprivileged people would have more agency to avoid housing instability during neighborhood growth.

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Read more about the Right to Housing:

The Problem

Today, federal policy creates inequities by providing more funding for wealthy homeownership than for affordable and supportive housing. Federal policy also incentivizes viewing housing as a commodity through the capital gains exemption. These policies create problems in gentrifying neighborhoods by causing housing prices to spiral and preventing the supply of affordable housing from growing.

The Agenda

The U.S. should adopt a right to housing similar to the model created by the United Nations. This model contains several elements that are particularly helpful in a gentrification context. Security of tenure means that tenants have protection from forced evictions, harassment, and other threats. Affordability maintains that housing is not adequate if its costs threaten the occupants’ enjoyment of other human rights. Habitability refers to physical safety, adequate space, and protection from health hazards. Accessibility means housing that is accessible to disadvantaged and marginalized groups. Location means proximity to employment opportunities and social services like health-care, schools, and childcare facilities. Lastly, cultural adequacy means housing must respect the expression of cultural identity.

A right to housing in the United States has been discussed and sought after since 1944. A right to decent housing was declared in 1944 by Franklin D Roosevelt in his “Second Bill of Rights” and the United States in 1948 signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that declared housing a human right. There were several other documents that were either signed or ratified to make housing a human right and/or decriminalize homelessness, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention Against Torture, and the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda.

 Establishing a right to housing in the U.S. constitution would help address housing problems by providing a framework to reform current housing policy so that it benefits everyone equitably. It would provide an impetus to decrease the amount of subsidy that goes to the wealthiest residents of the United States, and placing this money towards benefiting those most in need through housing programs. This right to housing is so important for the goal of making Americans more equal in a time where income inequality has reached unprecedented levels. To illustrate, the three wealthiest people in United States have more wealth than the bottom half of all Americans combined.  

Getting it Done

One way that the right to housing should change current spending patterns to increase funding for affordable housing is by reforming the mortgage interest deduction. This program caps deduction on mortgage interest for mortgages up to $1 million. Because the value of the deduction rises as the cost of the mortgage increases, this policy encourages people to buy larger and more expensive homes. While available to all who take out a mortgage, 90% of the deduction benefit is provided to households earning greater than $100,000. These households have larger mortgages and are more likely to have the resources to itemize their taxes, a requirement for taking the deduction.

 Not only does this program not benefit all income groups, it has failed to achieve the goals usually assigned to it. Supporters claim it promotes homeownership, but there is no evidence to support that the MID is correlated with higher rates of homeownership. Indeed, the deduction causes inflation in the housing market, which makes it more difficult for the poor to buy homes. Finally, because the program encourages more expensive homes, it also encourages excessive borrowing, which can lead to unstable housing markets and unstable individual finances.

Under a right to housing, this program should be reformed along the lines of the National Low Income Housing Coalition's policy proposal to reform the MID. First, mortgage dollars eligible for the MID will be lowered from $1 million to the first $500,000, which would have nearly no effect on homeownership rates. Then, the deduction would be converted to a nonrefundable, 15% capped tax credit. Converting the MID into a credit would mean that 25 million low and moderate-income households who do not itemize their taxes will still get a tax break for housing. The end result would be $241 billion dollars in savings over 10 years. Tthis money would go to targeted rental housing programs including the National Housing Trust Fund and a new renter’s tax credit.

We place a particular emphasis on the National Housing Trust Fund and a new renter’s tax credit. Increasing allocations to the trust fund would dramatically increase the funds available for building affordable housing, increasing the capacity of local governments and meeting more of the need for affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods. A renter’s tax credit would increase individual agency for underprivileged people in gentrifying areas and help make amends for past federal injustices. Unlike vouchers, all renters under a specified income limit would automatically qualify for this form of subsidy, making housing more affordable while making it clear that the government supports helping everyone in the US access adequate housing as defined by the UN. The renter credit is based on the proposed Rent Relief Act of 2017 sponsored by Joseph Crowley. The credit will be granted to renters earning up to $125,000 per year paying more than 30% of their gross income to rent. The credit would be limited to up to 150% of fair market rent with lower income households receiving a greater percent credit.

 There is some concern that a renters’ credit would increase housing costs as landlords would simply increase prices. The most effective way to avoid the costs of profit-maximizing behavior while guaranteeing that all Americans have access to housing they can afford might be to use federal funding to allow cities to build and manage their own social housing units, a technique similar to that of Vienna. A quarter of all housing units in Vienna are publicly owned, and many people benefit from them because residents are not required to move out when their rents increase. Such a policy would be a truly radical shift, but it may be the best goal to strive for in future. Together, declaring a right to housing and using that right to justify tax reform, investment in the National Housing Trust Fund, a renter’s credit, and even social housing would reduce the forces that drive up price and ensure that underprivileged peoples would have more agency to avoid housing instability during neighborhood growth.