Why does everyone deserve housing?
A human right is defined as something that everyone — regardless of class or color — deserves just for being alive. While there is some debate about what all of these are, the most basic and universally agreed upon is the right to live.
In their groundbreaking convening following the horrors of WWII, the United Nations listed several aspects of this human right, including the necessities of survival: food, water, and adequate shelter. These, and other rights such as education and personal autonomy, contribute to a life worth living, not mere existence on this planet.
You can also find these basics of life in schools of thought within psychology. Consider, for example, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: At the very bottom are the most basic necessities for survival, including a place to live. Without these, it’s near impossible to pursue the very things that make us human and allow us an opportunity to thrive.
Whether you've lived in Miami your whole life, just arrived off the coast yesterday, or were drawn to the city lights from far-flung states, you deserve to live a safe, healthy, and happy life. Black, brown, or white, rich or poor, we are all born with a common dignity. The ultra-rich and big real estate investors profit when we scapegoat each other, but through a united front, we stake our claim and protect human rights for us all.
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What makes housing a human right?
Safe and reliable shelter is necessary to live a healthy life that’s within your control. The right to housing has been codified by many international standards as a part of our right to live, signed onto by the US but not inherently protected by federal law.
Shelter is part of the bedrock of human needs; without it or the others like it (food and water), you can’t move on to other needs like safety, employment, health, or love. These basic needs contribute to our stability as individuals and families. Aristotle said the family is the nucleus of society and that the “family is the association established by nature for the supply of men's everyday wants.” In other words, the stability of the individual or the single-family unit is intrinsically linked to the stability of our society at large.
Individual rights are never just individual, their presence or lack thereof affects us all, Black or white, rich or poor. Once people's basic needs are met, they create more bonds in their community, become less inclined to engage in criminal activity, and contribute more to their families and a healthy society as a whole. By ensuring everyone has access to housing, we decrease crime rates, address public health needs, and contribute to a happier, more integrated social structure, one in which all our families and neighbors can truly prosper and fully participate in the democratic process.
Why doesn't the US enforce housing as a human right?
Our capitalist economy treats housing as a commodity or privilege, not a right in practice or policy. This is done by failing to address the roots of our lack of safe, affordable, and reliable housing for everyone while continuing to place the burden on tenants to enforce what limited protections we do.
If your rights to fair housing are being encroached upon, in most cases you have to sue in order to have them upheld. Of course, this deepens inequity even more as only those already with wealth and education privileges can afford to sue someone and know how to navigate the legal system.
Consider this example of a Miami resident who shared her story at a local organizing meeting. Her son had a rare medical condition that required expensive surgery but, thankfully, the boy qualified to have the costs completely covered. Unfortunately, they had been living in rundown housing for a long time where no repairs were being made. The boy’s mother complained to her landlord who retaliated illegally and evicted the entire family.
They went from place to place staying with relatives, friends, and other community members. They had to postpone the boy’s surgery with all the ongoing instability. The children were living in constant distress, never knowing how long they would be under one roof, if their mother would be able to keep her job amidst all the chaos, and if there would even be money for food.
Affordable, safe, stable housing was the cornerstone of everything else in the life of this mother and her family. From her son's surgery to her daughter's academic performance, to her ability to work, to their sense of safety, to the most minute aspect of their lives, everything was disrupted and at risk without housing. And in Florida, her only recourse was to somehow have the money, time, and system knowledge to sue her abusive landlord and maybe, just maybe, get the court to intervene.
What do climate change, systemic racism, reproductive rights, and economic inequality have to do with our right to housing?
Many other issues of our time impact our housing security and access. To name just a few:
- climate gentrification pushes low-wealth families and individuals off habitable land
- heavily polluting power plants are built in the neighborhoods of predominantly Black and brown people, making their homes no longer safe or healthy
- the practice of redlining kept an entire generation of Black people from owning homes and then passing on the equity of that property to their descendants, excluding them from the most valuable wealth-building tool of the time (check out this analysis of how redlining continues to affect Miami residents)
- the #1 indicator of whether you will be evicted or not is having children, and one in four women who are denied an abortion will fall below the poverty line, a reality that is especially true for Black and Hispanic working-class women
You cannot address one issue without considering the other. In their article on the right to housing, the American Bar Association states that our housing system “reflects income inequality and environmental injustice. From federal- to local-level laws impacting air and water, along with homeowners and the homeless, regulatory processes that influence where and how people live have an immediate and profound effect on shaping public health. It is essential to address how these regulations affect communities that have suffered from the distributional disparities of environmental and economic harm concurrent with the disproportionate protection of the law."
How can you get involved to preserve the right to housing?
Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more prepared you are to defend your right to housing and that of your neighbors. You can develop your individual advocacy skills through a training series like HEAL, connect with local organizers like the Miami Workers Center, and research the roots of our country’s and county’s housing crisis.
- Learn more about the history of our country’s founding. We didn't magically acquire this land nor "work hard" to earn it. We took it from others. Sometimes people use the same “self-made” logic against those who are unhoused, without taking into account the full realities of how a person becomes unhoused in our country.
- Speaking of, know the history of how homelessness even began. It was usually because of post-war economic losses that have since compounded over time. Take a look at some of the myths behind homelessness as well.
- Read and understand the vicious problem of the jail cycle in our country. Why do we pay to imprison people, but won’t pay to house them?
- Learn and understand the cycle of poverty and the limitations people have in receiving federal benefits (benefit cliffs).
- Know your legislators and hold them accountable. Write to and meet with your local and state lawmakers, speak truth to power by sharing your story and vision for housing justice, and keep track of their voting records to stay informed.
- Hold yourself accountable & ask questions. Do not just accept things for how they are. Why is this the way it is? Who is affected positively or negatively? Why do I or don't I care? Who stands to benefit from keeping entire groups in poverty? How would my feelings change if someone I love ended up in the streets?
- Center the stories of people’s lived experiences. We all want the same good life for ourselves, but some corrupt politicians and corporations want us to blame each other for scarcities. Combat those mindsets by making space for stories from different perspectives than your own.