Skip to footer

Why doesn't the US enforce housing as a human right?


The United States is a “negative rights” country. We have historically prioritized human rights that center individual freedoms, like being able to practice religion freely and speak our minds freely, with limited or no government interference. The rights to education, food, health care access, and housing are considered “positive” rights because the government would have to act proactively to guarantee those rights. Some states in the United States do protect the right to housing but the right to housing is not protected at the federal level.

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 many cases there aren’t even laws in place to attempt to enforce a right to safe and affordable housing. To enforce the limited housing rights that we have in Florida law, you would probably need a lawyer to represent you—and there are numerous barriers to legal representation, especially cost. Of course, this deepens inequity even more as only those already with wealth and education privileges can afford to obtain a lawyer 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.