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Stephen Brown

Housing as a Fundamental Human Right Housing pervades every aspect of life. In its most simple form, housing can be defined as shelter from the elements, and at the outset of human existence that definition proved sufficient. Today, however, housing is much more. It is a symbol of social status, a link to vital public services, a place to raise a family, and most importantly a safe haven from the outside world. Access to adequate housing is the basis for meeting almost every basic need and ensuring that the rights of people in a complex, modern society are guaranteed. This essay describes the relationship between human rights and human needs and how the two relate to affordable housing. Also, it will discuss the reasons that the traditional notion of housing affordability has become insufficient, and how the concept must be modified to fit society’s current needs. Over time, human needs and human rights have been examined and discussed at great lengths. For the purposes of this essay, human needs will be defined as those outlined by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 book Motivation and Personality[1], and human rights will be defined as those identified by the General Assembly of the United Nations in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948[2]. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is most often displayed as a pyramid, with the complexity of needs building on the more basic necessities at the bottom level. At the base of the pyramid lie physiological, instinctive needs such as water, food, air, and sleep; the second layer represents the needs for safety and security such as employment and shelter; the third layer denotes social needs such as friendships and romantic relationships; the fourth layer outlines needs such as selfesteem, personal worth, and accomplishment; and the pyramid’s peak is concerned with self-


actualization and personal growth. Maslow believed that the needs indicated in the upper levels can only be fulfilled when the needs of the lower levels are sufficiently met.[1] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a series of separate clauses that attempt to standardize the rights of all people of the world, and several of them relate to housing. The document states that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person (Article 3); all people are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law (Article 7); everyone has the right to own property (Article 17); everyone has the right to social security and the realization and development of his own personality (Article 22); 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 (Article 25); everyone has the right to education for the development of human personality and the promotion of understanding and tolerance among all nations, races, and religious groups (Article 26); and everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community (Article 27). Essentially, human rights are guarantees that human needs will be fulfilled, and when the need for housing is met, other necessities are more easily realized.[2] These two documents clearly identify housing as a basic need, and establish it as a fundamental right of all people of all nations. In spite of these universally accepted doctrines, and “despite its intimate and profound significance, adequate housing in the United States is not assured to all as a right.�[3] The 20th century saw the rise and decline of public and government subsidized housing, but also the greatest increase in homelessness and racial and income-based housing discrimination that the nation has ever experienced. Through various programs, the U.S. government has worked to provide housing for its low-income population, but has never guaranteed it - as a right - to all citizens. Impressive efforts have been made to replace decaying


slums with modernized public housing projects and to provide financial assistance to those in need of housing, however there are still issues with housing availability and above all, affordability. The most common definition of housing affordability is that 30% or less of a household’s income is devoted to either mortgage or rent.[6] Rachel Bratt argues that the ability to afford decent housing in relation a household’s income is essential in order to be able to afford the other necessities of life.[5] Excessive housing costs affect a household’s ability to obtain basic essentials as well as the numerous amenities that most people take for granted.[4] Michael Stone argues that housing affordability is an underlying cause of the inequality and insecurity that faces our society.[3] The shortage of affordable housing results not only from low levels of income, but also from a lack of supply. The current minimum wage is not sufficient to support a family or even bring a household above the poverty level, and the income produced is unrelated to the poverty level or cost of owning or renting a decent home.[5] Concerning supply, there are few incentives for developers to construct homes on which they will see little financial return, so only a small number of new affordable homes are being built. Many existing affordable homes are sinking into disrepair or being replaced with more expensive developments. Families that are most in need of affordable housing are constantly subjected to the multiple burdens that result from the insufficient supply of homes, including poor conditions, shelter-poverty, or homelessness. An unsettling number of U.S. households are either shelter-poor or live in inadequate housing. Michael Stone defines shelter-poverty as the inability to meet nonhousing needs at an adequate level after paying for housing. Shelter-poverty does not just affect low-income households, rather it results from housing costs that are disproportionate to incomes. Inadequate


housing is more difficult to define. Poor physical conditions, overcrowding, and neighborhood quality are all aspects of housing inadequacy. Inadequate housing can lead to physical and mental health issues such as malnutrition or depression, limited employment opportunity, and restricted access to public services.[3] Shelter-poverty, inadequate housing, and homelessness all result from the inability of a household to afford a decent dwelling. Affordable housing for low-income people tends to be placed in neighborhoods located either in inner cities or decaying suburbs. These locations usually offer limited access to job opportunities, quality education, and public facilities, and are often racially segregated. The racial and economic segregation of low-income housing leads to social isolation, and thereby limited opportunity for personal growth and self-sufficiency. While this kind of living situation may provide shelter from the elements and a place to sleep, it does not allow more complex needs to be met. Bratt argues that without adequate housing, people have difficulty maintaining employment, and parents are unable to provide sufficient care to themselves and their children.[5] In order for a person to realize the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, the most basic requirements must be adequately satisfied. There is a distinct connection between housing affordability, and the fulfillment of human needs. A person who earns a livable wage and can afford decent housing is much more likely to build strong friendships and relationships, establish a sense of personal worth and accomplishment, and grow both intellectually and emotionally. When housing is guaranteed as a fundamental human right, people from all walks of life have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Guaranteed housing does not lead to de-motivation of workers or potential workers,[5] as some critics claim, instead, it has been shown to increase the likelihood of employment and foster personal growth.


Housing as a right is put forth not only by the U.N. and political activists, but by religious organizations as well. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have stated that “decent housing is a right,” and that “the rights to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest and medical care... are absolutely basic to the protection of human dignity... These economic rights are as essential to human dignity as are the political and civil freedoms granted pride of place in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.” The General Board of American Baptist Churches has proclaimed “that each person being created in the image and likeness of God possesses an inherent dignity from which stems a basic human right to shelter.”[4] The traditional concept of housing affordability has become obsolete. Because minimum wage income does not even come close to the standard poverty line, affordable housing must be approached from a different direction. Bratt recommends an increase in minimum wage and a mandate that it “be set in relation to the cost of housing and representative of a true poverty level,” as well as being adjusted for inflation on a regular basis. She also supports welfare payments to qualifying households that will lift them out of poverty and enable a decent standard of living. [5] Wage increase can be complemented by tax breaks for households that fall below the poverty line, and individually-tailored mortgage and rental programs with reduced expenses. It is possible that the establishment of a right to housing will end up as bad as public housing projects or tenements. I propose, instead, that we establish a right to livable wages, a right to affordable housing, and a right to employment for all citizens. With these basic worries resolved, healthier food, better education, and true personal growth become the logical next steps. As time progresses and society becomes increasingly complex, human needs and rights will naturally evolve. One thing though, will always stay the same – humans will always require shelter. In order to function as the civilized country the United States claims to be, housing, food,


and care must be within reach of everyone. It is only when these fundamentals of existence are guaranteed that people can scale Maslow’s pyramid unencumbered and build richer, more fulfilling lives.


Sources: 1. Cherry, Kendra. "Esteem Needs - The Esteem Needs of the Hierarchy." Psychology Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/ss/maslows-needs-hierarchy_5.htm (accessed June 14, 2011). 2. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Welcome to the United Nations: It's Your World. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ (accessed June 14, 2011). 3. Stone, Michael E. "Housing Affordability: One-Third of a Nation Shelter-Poor." In A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda, edited by Rachel G. Bratt, Michael E. Stone, Chester Hartman, 38-60. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006. 4. Hartman, Chester "The Case for a Right to Housing." In A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda. edited by Rachel G. Bratt, Michael E. Stone, Chester Hartman, 177-192. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006. 5. Bratt, Rachel G. "Housing and Economic Security." In A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda. edited by Rachel G. Bratt, Michael E. Stone, Chester Hartman, 399-426. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006. 6. Schwartz, Alex F.. Housing policy in the United States . 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010.


Housing As A Fundamental Human Right  

A final essay written for a class on the evolution of Housing Policies in the United States.

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