Jimmy Carter: housing is a human right

Given its influence on the rest of life, it is a little surprising that there isn’t at least more conversation in the United States about seeing housing as a human right:

“To have a decent place to live is a basic human right. And also to have a chance to live in peace and to have adequate health care and adequate education, so you can take advantage of your talents,” he added.

Carter’s belief in housing as a fundamental right is rare in the United States, which provides so little support for affordable housing compared to other advanced industrialized nations. Analogous to the political rights of freedom of speech or religion, the notion of an economic right to housing is not recognized in the U.S. Constitution, but it is by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants.

I asked the former President why he sees housing as a human right when so many today think of it as a commodity or investment to be bought, sold, and traded for profit. “I don’t see how a family can enjoy other human rights like freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to vote, if they live in a disreputable place of which they are ashamed and makes their family lower their standard of ethical and moral values,” he said from Edmonton.

This is an interesting way to think about it: can you easily practice the basic freedoms afforded all Americans if you are homeless or don’t have stable housing? At the least, I’m guessing it is much more difficult.

What would be the arguments against housing as a human right today? Earlier debates about this, such as at the start of public housing in the United States (roughly the 1930s-1950s), included charges that government involvement in housing was akin to communism. But, the government has been heavily involved in housing such as helping make single-family homes in the suburbs more accessible after World War Two and there is still a mortgage interest deduction. The real issue is not whether the government should be involved in housing or not but who should be helped. I wonder if the biggest fear about housing as a right today is an issue that has plagued the conversation for decades: if the government guarantees housing for people, this may mean that I will soon live next door to or near government housing. Few middle-class or higher Americans want anything like that.

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