Housing: a right, not luxury

(U-WIRE) BALTIMORE — I hold the conviction that housing is a human right, and every time I meet another child, woman or man who is deprived of that right, my conviction grows stronger.

As a student who has always enjoyed the privilege of housing security, however, I could never fully articulate the adverse affects that America’s affordable housing crisis has on citizens who are struggling to provide necessities of life for themselves and their families.

Yet, as someone who has lost hours of sleep thinking about the horrible realities of poverty and homelessness that are exacerbated by the extreme lack of decent, affordable housing, I cannot stay silent.

Before pursuing current issues, let’s flash back to December 1948, when the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of that document states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care…”

That declaration was the first instance in which the human right to housing was promoted at the international level, but it certainly was not the last.

Historically, American political leaders have supported the concept of housing for all. Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1944 State of the Union address, declared housing one of the basic rights that “spell security.”

In the Housing Act of 1949, Congress linked the general welfare of the nation to its housing quality, and set the “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”

What has happened in America?

At the dawn of a new millennia, over 3 million Americans are estimated to be homeless over the course of a year and millions more low-income households struggle as they pay considerable portions of their incomes toward rent, placing their housing security at risk!

Homelessness seems to have become an acceptable part of the social landscape, as housing costs continue to soar absent a significant national response.

Homelessness, which is inextricably linked to poverty, is a complex issue, but any effort to address it would be limited without the dedication of significant resources towards affordable housing production.

America’s current affordable housing crisis has its roots in the 1970s.According to a 1998 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an estimated 2.2 million affordable housing units disappeared from the market between 1973 and 1993 due to demolition, cost increases, and conversion into more expensive housing units.

Despite the economic prosperity of the late 1990s, the housing crisis worsened as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that a record 5.4 million households had “worst case” housing needs in 1997.

More recently, rents have continued to soar.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition reported that the average wage a full-time worker in America would have to earn in 2003 to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market price is $15.21 an hour, which marks a 37 percent increase from 1999.

What has been the federal response to this national crisis?

Increases in HUD’s budget since 1976 have been negligible when compared to increases in the overall federal budget, and housing assistance remains scarce amidst high demand.

It is important to point out that the largest federal housing assistance program, which provides mortgage interest deductions to homeowners, disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans in the top fifth of the income bracket.

To add insult to injury, the House of Representatives, with its infinite wisdom, recently passed an appropriations bill that will leave 108,000 Section 8 housing assistance vouchers unfunded because of a $900 million shortfall in funding.

That inadequate funding would mark the first time since the program’s inception in 1974 that Congress failed to renew all existing vouchers.

Here are two recommendations that are the least that Congress should do if they care about protecting the housing security of Americans.

First, provide sufficient funds to renew all Section 8 vouchers. The program has received strong bipartisan support in the past because it utilizes the private market, helps families successfully leave and stay off welfare, and provides stable housing needed to help children achieve in school.

Second, pass the National Housing Trust Fund Act.

This proposed legislation would dedicate a source of revenue towards affordable housing production over the next decade while providing significant economic stimulus that the country desperately needs.