A new bill that seeks to declare housing as a human right represents a turning point in how the federal government is responding to America’s affordable housing crisis.
The Homes For All Act, reintroduced on March 24 by Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, seeks to invest more than $800 billion over ten years to construct more than twelve million affordable housing units. More than 8.5 million of those homes would be public housing, and another $200 million would be invested in the Housing Trust Fund, which is aiming to help developers build 3.5 million new private affordable housing projects for low and extremely-low income families.
“The pandemic has made clear how deep our affordable housing crisis is.”
The bill would also repeal the Faircloth Amendment, which has prevented the Department of Housing and Urban Development from investing in public housing since it was passed in 1998. Omar previously introduced the bill in 2019, but it stalled in the House Financial Services Committee.
Currently, many qualified potential homebuyers remain priced out of the U.S. housing market. According to the latest data from Zillow, the average list prices for homes has ballooned by 28 percent over the past three years, with more than 20 percent of that growth coming after the pandemic began. Home prices in metropolitan areas ranging from Boise, Iowa, to Greensboro, North Carolina, have seen even higher growth, and are now out of reach for workers who earn a median salary.
“The pandemic has made clear how deep our affordable housing crisis is,” Omar said in a statement.
Declaring housing as a human right is not a new concept. President Franklin Roosevelt said during his 1944 State of the Union address that “the right of every family to a decent home” was an economic truth that was “self-evident,” thereby linking the right to housing to the Declaration of Independence.
Four years later, with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations recognized the right to housing and an adequate standard of living in the Declaration’s Article 25. The same sentiment was expressed in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The United States signed this agreement in 1977, but has not yet ratified it, and does not recognize a right to housing under law. Lisa Rice, CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, tells The Progressive that this is just one example of how hypocritical U.S. housing policy is.
“When you make housing a human right, it raises the specter that the government has a role to play in guaranteeing housing rights for the people,” Rice says.
In fact, a myriad of federal housing aid programs have worked to increase white homeownership rates at the expense of people of color, including the Federal Housing Administration in 1933, which refused to insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods.
The practice is commonly referred to as “redlining” because the Federal Housing Administration distributed maps to banks of areas where it would insure mortgages and Black neighborhoods were outlined in red.
Even today, many banks have been found guilty of modern redlining practices and have been forced by courts to pay out large settlements. For example, Wells Fargo paid more than $184 million in fines in 2012 because the bank steered non-white loan applicants into subprime mortgages. The bank was sued again in March 2022 for allegedly preventing people of color from refinancing their mortgages.
The impact of redlining has disproportionately affected Americans with low incomes, according to research from SAVI, a data project of the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing.
Even though redlining was prohibited under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, SAVI found that children who are born in historically redlined neighborhoods have average salaries that are $15,000 lower than their peers by the age of thirty, even if their parent’s income remains the same. These neighborhoods also often produce worse health outcomes for residents and tend to have higher crime rates.
“Housing is central to your ability to live a good life, to get a good education, and get a good job,” Rice says.
According to U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, Democrat of California, who is co-sponsoring the legislation, the bill is also designed to help reverse the growing trend of homelessness. In 2020, a count taken for a single night in the last week in January found that 580,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States.
Meanwhile, another one million households reported being “very likely” to be evicted from their homes within the next two months because they are still behind on rent, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. More than half of these respondents were either Hispanic, Latinx, or Black, which points to the racial disparity in the ways the pandemic has impacted renters of color.
“The ongoing effects of the pandemic threaten to further exacerbate these crises, which disproportionately impact low-income communities and people of color,” Padilla said in a statement.
Anne Mavity, executive director for the Minnesota Housing Partnership, tells The Progressive that the bill could have an immediate impact on her local community if it passes. The one-night count taken in January 2000 showed that nearly 8,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Minnesota. Black people accounted for 42 percent of the total of unhoused folks, despite accounting for just 7 percent of the state’s population
Mavity says the Homes for All Act would help address this disparity by investing in affordable housing and removing several barriers to housing access as well. Some examples include prohibiting discrimination based on source of income, sexual orientation, gender identity, criminal history, and immigration status.
“No matter where we’re from or where we live,” Mavity says, “having a safe, stable place to come home to is the foundation for Americans’ well-being.”