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.

Claim: “Local politics is always…about housing”

In a detailed overview of the policy debates over housing between YIMBY and the Democratic Socialist of America groups in San Francisco, Henry Grabar leads with an interesting argument:

Local politics is always, in one way or another, about housing. In San Francisco, a deep blue city whose fault lines long ago ceased to resemble America’s, that politics is a vitriolic civic scrimmage, where people who agree about almost every national issue make sworn enemies over zoning, demolition, and development. It’s like a circular firing squad at a co-op meeting.

This seems similar to Sonia Hirt’s contention that zoning in America is all about protecting the single-family home.

Ultimately, do local politics always come down to housing? In many ways, housing is the bedrock of a community: it is where residents experience home, it provides numerous signals about the status of the residents and the community (through property values, architecture, the quality of life associated with the dwellings), and it generates property tax revenue (more important in some places than others). If the housing is bad shape or there are major issues, it is a major concern for residents and, by extension, their elected (and unelected) officials.

Perhaps we could even get more specific about which aspects of housing drives local politics. Which issue is most important may differ based on the (1) class status of the community and (2) its stage of development. How about property values? Or decisions about large-scale developments (particularly if they present some differences from already-existing housing)?

Skepticism on whether the AFFH will improve urban housing

An overview of how the Trump administration might work with the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule includes this skepticism from a sociologist:

While these baby steps are improvements on the status quo, it’s easy to see why many housing experts remain skeptical of the rule. “The whole history of enforcement of fair-housing law … shows that more conservative and more liberal politicians use different rhetoric but act pretty much the same,” Brown University’s John Logan, a well-regarded expert on segregation, told me. “Only through court action, with HUD and/or localities as defendants, have real steps been taken.” The history is certainly not heartening.

The real question regarding housing integration or affordable housing is how government officials can convince wealthier white residents to live near cheaper housing and non-white residents. Residential integration does not come easily, and as Logan suggests, court action is often required before it will happen. If the new AAFH is successful, will it be because fair housing is built in less white and less wealthy areas?

Row houses popping up in suburban downtowns

For the last twenty years or so, condos or luxury apartments have been constructed in numerous suburban downtowns in the Chicago region. The communities may have now moved on to row houses:

What’s in vogue now, at least in upscale living, might just be the row house, say developers of a six-unit project called Charleston Row.

These $1.1 million to $1.3 million row houses will have two or three bedrooms, two- or three-car garages, 3½ or 4½ bathrooms, a basement, a large mudroom, not one but two rooftop terraces and even their own private elevator…

After years of building new homes on the sites of teardowns in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and Naperville, Charleston leaders said they started hearing a new trend. They noticed a desire for something other than the 5,000-square-foot luxury house, standing on its own with a good-sized yard in a subdivision on the outskirts of suburbia.

What these buyers want instead, Van Someren said, is what Charleston Row offers: convenience to a downtown with dining, night life and shops, a low-maintenance lifestyle without a massive lawn to mow, and luxury features such as custom staircases and tile work, hardwood floors, a butler’s station, a breakfast nook and countertops made of granite, marble or quartz. The fancy stuff.

In addition to the factors cited above, I wonder if a few other forces are also at work here:

  1. Row houses may connote a more luxurious or trendy setting than condos or single-family homes. One of the examples cited in the article suggests this: row houses may inspire images of similar higher-end dwellings in London. (On the flip side, these row homes do not remind suburbanites of the row houses in poor neighborhoods such as depicted in Baltimore on The Wire.)
  2. Row houses offer similarities to single-family homes but with densities that builders, suburbs, and opponents of suburban sprawl can appreciate. Builders would like them because they can fit more (expensive) homes on the same amount of land. Suburbs like them for similar reasons; the housing is contained in attractive locations. (I’m guessing not too many suburbs want block after block of these row houses – that would be too monotonous.) For those who dislike sprawl, these might be symbols of denser suburban housing that is ultimately better than continuing to build new subdivisions way on the suburban fringe. (At the same time, such row homes are often not cheap and are not within the reach of most suburbanites, continuing to push them further out.)

We’ll see how long these continue to attractive to the parties cited above.

Ending a long-term relationship can lead to downward mobility in housing

The end of a long-term relationship can negative influence one’s housing options:

Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review.

How drastic this fall will be depends very much on the housing market environment (see Figures 1 and 2). In the past in Britain, easy access to housing finance and high supply facilitated (re-)entry into homeownership for ex-partners even under house price inflation in the 1990s and early 2000s. In tight housing markets ex-partners will face more difficulties, and once access to mortgages becomes restricted, as happened in Britain after the recent crash in the housing market, problems may arise. So in the past British ex-partners could return to homeownership at some point in their lives because access to mortgages was easy – and they needed to return because alternatives in the private and social rental sector were and are unattractive. This may no longer work in future. Ex-partners may increasingly face similar problems that new market entrants currently encounter, for which the term generation rent has already been coined.

To better understand what may happen to British ex-partners, we can consider the example of Germany. The German housing market is in many ways different from the British, not the least because private rental accommodation is an attractive alternative to homeownership. Access to mortgages is also more restricted than in Britain, even after the recent tightening of regulations in Britain. High down payments are the rule in Germany. In this market environment, homeownership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, while a considerable share of people will never enter homeownership. After separation, very few Germans will be able to return to homeownership (see Figure 2). Ex-partners will be less likely to be in homeownership through their lives post-separation. This scenario may foreshadow the British situation in the near future.

Being excluded from homeownership in the German context is not as consequential as it may turn out to be in Britain, however. First, more Germans will accept to rent after separation compared to the British, because attractive, and most of all, secure accommodation is available for – internationally seen – reasonable costs. Second, the German public pension system is relatively generous for those who continuously worked throughout their lives. To build up private wealth as a cushion for old age is not as necessary as in Britain. In Britain, where individuals are expected to privately invest in financial products and property to build an individual safety net – an idea called asset-based welfare – people that experience a separation may lose this safety net. This may result in stark disparities between the separated and those remaining married in old life.

Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/10/home-ownership-marriage-separation/#sthash.bcXULRwJ.dpuf
Many (though declining numbers of) marriages end in separation today. Besides the emotional turmoil that the marital separation causes, this event has profound effects on the chances to remain in homeownership for both ex-partners. Generally, at least one, if not both partners, will leave the previously shared dwelling. As separation often involves a loss of financial resources, people may have a hard time re-entering homeownership. After falling out of love and separating, a fall down the housing ladder may follow, as we show in a study recently published in European Sociological Review. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/10/home-ownership-marriage-separation/#sthash.bcXULRwJ.dpuf

The authors conclude that changes in family structures over the past few decades mean that housing policy primarily built around families and stable relationships just won’t work. In other words, we need more housing options for smaller, changing families and people who live alone.

I wonder if the same findings would hold in the United States. Perhaps it might be particularly problematic in higher-priced markets where buying homes and renting can be difficult even for stable, middle-class families.

Preparing for a lot more baby boomer friendly housing

An aging population means that more Americans are going to be looking for housing that meets their needs – and there may not be enough of it:

While affordability is a problem on the horizon for some older residents, accessibility challenges are virtually guaranteed for all. While increased life expectancy and a factor that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cites as “compression of morbidity” means that older generations (even beyond the Baby Boomers) are living actively later into life, disability eventually affects almost everyone. One of the great equalizers in life, disability arrives without any deference to income or race. (Privilege in these realms often makes it easier for people to adjust to disabilities, of course.)…

The housing stock built for Baby Boomers largely wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. There are five universal-design housing features that tend to address a variety of disabilities that residents face as they age: no-step entries; single-floor living; switches and outlets set at lower heights; extra-wide hallways and doors; and lever-style doors and faucets. Nearly 90 percent of existing homes have one of these features, according to the report—but just 57 percent have two…

Homes built more recently are more likely to accommodate all five universal-design features. Among these universal-design features, the one that’s most common in homes today is the single floor. More than 86 percent of homes in non-metro areas features single-floor living. These figures for cities and suburbs are high as well: 74 and 72 percent, respectively.

Yet these detached, single-floor, single-family homes—and the automobile-centric society that comes with them—are only going to fall further out of step with the needs of residents over time. And sooner rather than later. Homes can be retrofitted with lever-style handles and no-step entries (albeit at great expense). It’s much harder to turn exurban and rural communities where older Americans live into places that nurture seniors rather than isolate them.

A range of issues to consider from design to the layout of communities. Given the retirement savings of Americans, how many of them could afford to move to a new or retrofitted home as they age? One benefit of aging is that these Americans could theoretically have already paid off their homes or gotten close to that point, capping how much they spend on housing. How many want to search out a new mortgage or pay for potentially costly renovations? Some possible solutions:

1. Building more housing for all ages that meet these guidelines. Accessibility can be an issue even for younger residents.

2. Finding funds at a federal or lower level of government to help people retrofit their current residents to better meet these standards. This has the benefit of helping them do what many want as well as letting them stay engaged in and involved with the communities they care about.

3. Aging Americans living in suburbs is a tougher issue as it often requires dependence on a car and it is more difficult to distribute social services. This might require finding ways to make single-family homes multi-unit or building pockets with suburbs that cater to older residents (and not necessarily creating whole new communities like Del Webb).

Another take on “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl”

Here is an excerpt from a new book where the author suggests suburban sprawl has reached the end of the road:

Despite the struggles of the 1970s, or perhaps because of them, sprawl moved on. It spread over wider territories. It mutated into new forms. The eye was assaulted by landscapes never seen before. Fields of McMansions sprang up in the countryside, gated communities cowered behind stucco walls, office towers were sprinkled among parking lots…

These toll lanes were quickly dubbed Lexus lanes, and they deserve the name. A study showed that drivers with incomes above $100,000 were four times more likely than those who earn less than $40,000 to have used the toll lanes on their last trip. Tolls can reach levels that seem astronomical to drivers accustomed to free interstates, yet they rarely bring in enough money to pay back the cost of construction. Most Lexus lanes need heavy subsidies.

Highways are thus segregated by economic class, much like suburban neighborhoods. Lexus lanes, by design, serve a minority—if most of the cars were in the pay lanes, the free lanes would move at the speed limit and there would be no reason to pay. The tolls are primarily an allocation mechanism, and only incidentally a source of revenue. Their purpose is to deter those less able to pay from using the new lanes. Those wealthy enough to afford the tolls bypass the traffic jams, while everyone backed up on the free lanes gets to pay the bills…

Only the tightening of land use regulation in the nimby era can explain the falloff in construction of apartment houses. Their builders face stricter zoning, growth controls, and aroused neighbors.

It would be interesting to see the unique argument of this new book because this excerpt puts together a number of the complaints about suburban sprawl that have been around for decades: roads are expensive and wasteful as regulations and taxes encouraged driving, promoting bigger single-family homes leads to more private lives marked by NIMBYism and increased consumption, and all of this led to a housing bubble and economic crisis. Perhaps the new argument – hinted at in this excerpt – is that the pace of all of this really picked up from the 1970s through the early 2000s. Sure, American suburbs existed before then but even the post-World War II exemplars, the Levittowns, had much smaller housing and were denser compared to the far-flung new waves of suburban development of recent decades.