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Housing Justice 101: Definitions, Examples, Learning Opportunities

Millions of people lack housing justice, which is the right to safe, adequate, and equitable housing. Systemic inequalities like racial discrimination, income inequality, weak government policies, and more are the main causes, while people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, women, and refugees tend to face the most challenges. In this article, we’ll cover the basics of housing justice 101, including a thorough definition, examples of housing justice, and learning opportunities.

Housing justice is the idea that everyone deserves safe, affordable, and health-promoting housing regardless of race, income, gender, ethnicity, ability, and more. Initiatives like rent control, tenant organizing, public housing, fair housing laws, and inclusionary zoning help ensure housing justice.

What’s the definition of housing justice?

Housing justice is based on the idea that housing is a human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to adequate housing. The article reads:

“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  (emphasis added) and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood,  old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also adopted the right to adequate housing in 1991, where it was identified as “of central importance” for enjoying every other economic, social and cultural right. The Committee went further in its definition, stating that the right to housing shouldn’t be narrowly defined as a commodity. It should be seen as “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” What about the term “adequate?” What does it mean? In a copy of the CESCR General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing, the Committee lists seven things that must be accounted for:

#1 Legal security of tenure

Tenure includes things like rental accommodation, leases, and emergency housing. “Legal security of tenure” means everyone must have legal protections against forced evictions, harassment, and other threats.

#2 Availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure

An adequate living space must include certain facilities, like safe drinking water, energy for cooking, heating, lighting, sanitation, waste disposal, emergency services, and so on. These services must also be consistently available. If someone only occasionally has safe drinking water, their housing can’t be considered adequate.

#3 Affordability

“Affordable” means housing costs can’t make it harder to get access to other basic needs. The State needs to take steps to ensure housing-related costs stay in proportion with income levels and give subsidies to those who can’t pay for affordable housing. Renters should also be protected from unreasonable rental costs and increases.

#4 Habitability

Adequate housing needs to provide adequate space and safety from natural elements (cold, heat, rain, wind, etc), structural dangers, disease vectors (like stagnant water), and other health threats.

#5 Accessibility

The Committee states that “adequate housing must be accessible to those who are entitled to it.” The document specifically mentions that groups like children, people with disabilities, survivors of natural disasters, and other disadvantaged groups should get “some degree” of priority. Housing laws and policies also need to fully account for special housing needs.

#6 Location

A person’s home needs to give them access to things like job options, healthcare services, schools, and childcare whether they’re in an urban or rural environment. Housing also can’t be built on or near polluted sites because of the health risks.

#7 Cultural adequacy

Cultural identity and housing diversity should be factored into construction, materials, and housing policies. That includes any activities involving development and modernization. Cultural aspects shouldn’t be threatened.

These seven factors give us a clear idea of what housing justice initiatives should include. As you can see, other human rights – like the right to health, right to adequate work, right to freedom from discrimination – are deeply entrenched in the definition of housing justice.

What are some examples of housing justice?

Housing justice movements are found all over the world, but what are they working toward? It’s not as simple as telling the government to build a house or buy a piece of land for everyone. There are specific and diverse initiatives that may help ensure housing justice for everyone:

#1 Rent control

Rent control policies limit how much landlords can charge. This prevents rent from getting so expensive that properties are no longer affordable for tenants. Policies can look like setting a maximum for each rent increase or capping how much a landlord can ever charge. A study by the Urban Institute found that rent control is generally successful if the goal is to promote stability for people living in rent-controlled units. However, it may not help improve economic opportunity or reduce racial disparities. More research can help determine when and where rent control is most beneficial and what other policies are needed to promote housing justice.

#2 Tenant organizing

Tenant organizing happens when people who rent collaborate and advocate for more rights, better living conditions, and changes to unfair practices. Activities include holding meetings, forming tenant associations, organizing rent strikes, holding eviction protests, and talking to the media. The San Francisco Tenants Union, which has been organizing for over 50 years, is a good example. The union has helped achieve victories like 1979’s Rent Control Ordinance, which restricted rent increases and evictions. They also advocated for Prop C, which taxes major corporations to raise housing funds for people experiencing homelessness.

#3 Public housing

Government agencies operate public housing, which provides affordable rental homes for low-income individuals and families. In the UK, where public housing is called “social housing” or “council housing,” 3.9 million people lived in social housing between 2016-2018. Public housing doesn’t always meet the standards of adequate housing, however. A piece from the Financial Times described the Better Social Housing Review’s report, which urged associations to perform audits and give tenants more power in decision-making. The death of a 2-year-old following long-term exposure to mold in his house provides just one example of why the UK needs to address the quality of its public housing.

#4 Fair housing laws

Discrimination has had a huge impact on housing justice throughout the world. In the United States, policies like redlining kept Black Americans from participating equally in the housing market. The Fair Housing Act, which passed in 1968, prohibited housing discrimination based on race, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and so on. It also requires design and construction standards, like accessible doorways and common areas, and other reasonable accommodations, like allowing service pets. Passing – and enforcing – fair housing laws are vital to housing justice.

#5 Inclusionary zoning

Inclusionary zoning policies require developers to turn a certain percentage of their new units into affordable housing. The goal is to push back against exclusionary zoning, which reinforces racial segregation and economic discrimination. According to Inclusionary Housing, there are more than 1000 inclusionary housing programs in 31 states, which have created 100,000+ affordable housing units in the United States.

Programs vary but include both legal requirements and incentives like density bonuses and housing subsidies.

Where can you learn more about housing justice?

There are many learning opportunities for housing justice, including online courses (like Housing Justice: A View from Indian Cities), workshops, and conferences. You can also look for tenant unions and housing nonprofits in your area for educational resources and volunteering opportunities. What about books? Here’s where to start:

Evicted: Poverty and Property in the American City (2017)

By: Matthew Desmond

This Pulitzer-winning book follows eight Milwaukee families as they struggle to stay housed. Desmond explores issues like poverty, economic exploitation, and solutions for the housing crisis in the United States.

The Right to Dignity: Housing Struggles, City Making, and Citizenship in Urban Chile (2022)

By: Miguel Pérez

Based on fieldwork from 2011-2015, anthropologist Miguel Pérez chronicles a social movement in Chile, where activists and residents fight for better living conditions, the right to stay in their neighborhoods of origin, and recognition as citizens who deserve rights. This book shows what happens when housing is framed as a commodity and not a basic right.

Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (2021)

By: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

This finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History describes how housing discrimination continued even after fair housing laws. Groups like bankers, investors, and real estate agents exploited Black people – especially Black women – while new policies intended to encourage low-income homeownership made things worse for Black homeowners. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues that instead of ending racist exclusion, changes transformed it into “predatory inclusion.”

Indigenous Dispossession: Housing and Maya Indebtedness in Mexico (2020)

By: M. Bianet Castellanos

In Mexico, tract housing developments exploded into a billion-dollar industry while land reform debates were replaced by neoliberal housing policies. This book explores the impact of replacing traditional housing on Indigenous peoples’ relationships to land, urbanism, and finance. Castellanos describes what Maya migrants experience in one of Mexico’s fastest-growing cities as they deal with predatory lending practices, foreclosure, and other colonial structures.

Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems, and Changing Lives (2015)

By: Benjamin Henwood, Sam Tsemberis, and Deborah Padgett

The oldest book on the list, Housing First remains an important documentation of the Housing First approach, which began in 1992. It challenges the usual process of putting a person experiencing homelessness into shelters and transitional housing programs and assessing their “housing readiness.” The Housing First approach provides people immediate access to permanent housing without preconditions. Does it work? This book lays out the evidence.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.