homeless person

The Sacramento City Council is strongly considering passage of the nation’s first “right to housing” measure.

What would that mean? And what might be the broader impact if more cities, and even states, proclaim housing to be a human right?

For Sacramento, it would mean that California’s capital city would be legally obligated to provide housing for its growing homeless population of about 11,000 people. It would also provide a way for the city to comply with recent federal court rulings that have made it difficult for cities to clear out homeless encampments if they do not provide alternatives.

A Major Step

While a few places have enacted measures to provide shelter to homeless people when they need it — New York City, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts – nobody has taken the further step of mandating homes for the homeless.

In Sacramento, Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been leading the charge after being named as co-chair of a statewide task force created by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 to recommend ways cities and counties can address homelessness. In January 2020 the task force recommended to Newsom that all localities be required to house their homeless populations.

In April, a federal judge ordered Los Angeles to house homeless people living on the city’s “skid row” by October, and on June 30, Steinberg said he wanted his city to take steps to prevent a similar order. On that day he announced that he was calling upon the city council to develop a siting plan for “5,000 new beds, roofs and spaces.”

In calling for a legally mandated right to housing, Steinberg said the measure would also require homeless people to accept shelter. If they don’t, he said, they could face civil – not criminal – consequences.

A Ticket to Sweep Homeless Encampments?

If passed, the measure would provide a legally enforceable “right to housing” mandate that provides the power of law that has been lacking in public commitments to housing poor and homeless people.

Clearly, state and local governments are leery of any requirements that they house the homeless due to the obvious financial burden it would bring. As well, housing advocates have their own concerns because a mandate “might be used to intensify police crackdowns, potentially giving cities free legal rein to sweep encampments of homeless people as long as they first offer some kind of shelter,” as the New York Times reported.

Still, it looks as though there is momentum in California for local governments to move into a new service area: housing for the homeless.

Meanwhile, the idea of mandating a “right to housing” is not just a California thing. It is also being seriously debated in Connecticut, where the state senate recently passed a bill that would do that. The statehouse had not acted on the measure before the session ended in June but may do so when the 2022 session begins in January.

Historical Perspective

The talk about “housing rights” in California and elsewhere is really nothing new. It’s a term that’s been used for decades at every level of government and throughout the world, but mostly as a lofty aspiration and not as actual law.

With the nation still at war, in 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a “Second Bill of Rights,” that included a right for all Americans to have a “decent home.” But little came of it. When Congress passed the landmark 1949 Housing Act, the right to housing was framed as a goal, not a mandate.

Some nations do mandate a right to housing. France, Scotland, and South Africa say so in their constitutions, and in 2003 Scotland passed a housing law requiring local governments to provide permanent housing for homeless people within 90 days.

The notion that American cities will be required to house their homeless seems like a prospect that is light years away, if ever. Enforcing a right to housing would be difficult, given the high cost of producing affordable housing.

But as Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, told radio station KQED in San Francisco last year, a right to housing doesn’t mean that cities will be required to build free housing. Instead, he said, it would provide a stronger legal base for preventing homelessness and providing affordable housing through things like vouchers and incentives for builders.

So, what might “housing as a human right” look like in actual practice? Says Tars: “What that looks like at the local level is a lot of things that our country is doing already, but it needs to be brought to a fuller scale.”

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