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By Eric Johnson
Published Jun 19, 2023

A homeless camp along Interstate 80 in Sacramento. A homeless camp along Interstate 80 in Sacramento. Image credit: Chris Allan, Shutterstock

Is Housing a Human Right?

The radical yet eminently responsible notion that housing should be legally recognized as a human right has only recently made it into the news. I first heard about it in the summer of 2019. I was visiting Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg in his office, interviewing him for a story on a different topic, when he told me about the idea. I had asked him offhandedly about the state’s fledgling Commission on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which Gov. Gavin Newsom had appointed Steinberg—a former president pro tem of the California Senateto lead. The mayor chose to respond to my question by talking about the human-rights idea, which was frankly more interesting. 

Steinberg has twice since introduced measures declaring that the City of Sacramento would be obliged to recognize housing as a human right. These represented the first such moves in the country. In each case, the mayor paired this legal recognition with a requirement that anyone living on the street accept housing if it is offered. (That element of the plan, another first, received much more attention—that is a topic for another day.)

Meanwhile, the idea of recognizing housing as a human right caught on elsewhere in the state. In two subsequent sessions of the California Legislature, there were two such proposals. And in the current session, Assembly Member Matt Haney of San Francisco has introduced a bill that would add an amendment to the California Constitution declaring that the state “recognizes the fundamental human right to adequate housing for everyone in California.” That would be, as Joe Biden might say, a BFD.

The Perpetual Housing ‘Crisis’

I’ve been writing and assigning stories about California’s housing “crisis” for decades. I think this is the first time I’m using that word accurately.

According to the relevant definition in Webster’s, a crisis is “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.” When I've covered the issue previously—dating back to 1997 at newspapers in Santa Cruz, San Jose, Monterey and Sacramento—there was no impending decisive change. Now there is. 

In addition to the possibility that the state’s constitution will be amended to fix California's most treacherous problem, lawmakers in Sacramento have made some bold moves that are likely to have an impact. As the LA Times reported when the laws now being considered were introduced, they were meant to “increase production of affordable homes and strengthen tenant protections against evictions and surging rents.” As of this writing, most of them have a strong chance of passage.

Zoning to Fix a Perpetual Crisis

Again: It is not accurate to call California’s housing situation a “crisis” because that word denotes a “crucial time.” This problem is not bounded by years or even decades. It has been painfully difficult for a vast number of people to find adequate affordable housing here since the 1970s. Why is that the case? In a word: Zoning.

From Jon Vankin’s Explainer: “According to a study conducted by the New York Times in 2019, 75 percent of land in many American cities is zoned 'single family,' meaning that building anything other than one structure occupied by one family is outlawed. In San Jose, the study found 94 percent of the city’s land carries single-family zoning.” That is: Zoned exclusively for the most-expensive type of homes.

San Jose may be the worst California city when it comes to zoning for affordability, but the rest of the state is bad. Here’s how we got to this sorry state of affairs. (And yes: Racism is a big part of the problem.)

How Zoning Laws Shape California and Society

Zoning laws tell you what you can and can't build on the property you own. How does government get away with that?
Zoning laws determine what can be built and where. These laws have shaped California, but are they really just tools for social engineering? The history of zoning is closely tied to racial segregation, as well as the state's shortage of housing.

Voters May Make Housing a Human Right in CA

What happens if the state constitution gives everyone a basic right to housing?
More than 170,000 people are homeless in California. Some Democrats want to make the state the nation’s first to declare housing a human right with a state constitutional amendment, but opponents worry it would be costly.

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