The Human Right to Housing

Housing and homelessness are human rights issues—and that can be an organizing strength.

The Human Rights Framework

In the United States, we’re more used to talking about civil rights — the right to vote, the right to free speech — than we are about economic, social, and cultural rights. But international human rights law embraces these lesser-discussed rights.

While never ratified by the U.S. Senate, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational human rights document adopted (with U.S. leadership) by the United Nations in 1948, includes the “right to an adequate standard of living.” This can serve as a powerful tool for advocates.

There are seven elements required for housing to be considered adequate under these standards: it must be habitable, accessible, affordable, and culturally adequate; offer security of tenure; be located near jobs, schools, and other needed services; and have necessary infrastructure such as sanitation.

International standards require governments to realize this right progressively, using the “maximum of their available resources.” Governments are not required to ensure the right for all immediately, but they must show constant progress toward that goal.

It’s unlikely that the human right to housing will be fully realized in the United States any time soon given the current focus in Congress on cutting spending on social programs. But as advocates, we can work toward that goal. And while we work toward our broad, long-term goal of housing justice for all, we can also use the human right to housing in our advocacy to get shorter-term, concrete results now.

In 2007 the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) held a forum on the human right to housing in Minneapolis keynoted by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D, Minn.). He said he agreed that housing is a human right, which gave us an entrance to begin working with him on the idea of making that right a reality. One of the seven elements of the right to housing is legal security of tenure, which in general terms, means your housing can’t be arbitrarily taken away from you. As foreclosures increased, we and our partner organizations worked with Ellison on a bill to protect tenants living in foreclosed properties from being summarily evicted — strengthening their security of tenure, one of the seven elements of the human right to housing. The Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act was enacted into law in 2009. It was a big win.

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