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Opinion In D.C., housing should be a human right

Brookland Manor, a sprawling, Depression-era housing complex on a hill overlooking Rhode Island Avenue. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

George A. Jones is chief executive of Bread for the City.

In 1966, the United Nations identified adequate housing as a fundamental human right as part of its International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. But, even as early as 1944, in his State of the Union address, with the world still at war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed the concept of housing as a human right as a potential federal policy in the aftermath of the Great Depression. He introduced a “Second Bill of Rights,” an effort to further address the rampant poverty and income inequality that besieged millions of Americans. That included the right for every American, regardless of “station, race, or creed” to have “a decent home.”

And yet, 77 years later during a different kind of war — the public health crisis that is the coronavirus — we still do not have housing as a human right in this country. Through our many years working with unhoused and housing insecure residents of D.C., we at Bread for the City have come to understand that housing is as essential to human life as food and water. In fact, taking a housing-first approach tells us that housing is foundational to achieving other indicators of stability and well-being. The stability that comes through housing lessens food insecurity, enables folks to hold more steady employment and receive more regular benefits and lessens the harmful stress that leads to lasting trauma, especially for the youngest unhoused among us — the estimated more than 5,000 homeless children in D.C. Overall food insecurity is on the rise because of strain from the pandemic, but studies continue to show us that the gap is widening for communities of color where, for example, 1 in 5 of Black individuals may experience continued or additional food insecurity in 2021. Providing a secure, safe and affordable housing solution for those already or newly vulnerable seems like an obvious approach to reducing or even ending poverty, especially on racial lines.

Though the housing crisis in D.C. existed long before the coronavirus, an increase in the inability to pay rent is being followed by the pandemic-related rise in unemployment and underemployment. As federal and local eviction moratoriums come to an end, fears about eviction and a worsening affordable housing crisis may come to fruition for many families across the United States. In D.C., the reality of facing eviction post-pandemic is especially felt in the Black community. Black residents make up about 48 percent of the city’s population but a staggering 88 percent of D.C.'s unhoused; 50 percent of Black households rent their homes compared with only 30 percent of White households. Latinx residents have similar rates of renting, around 57 percent. Looking across the country, we see a similar story. Communities of color are overrepresented in the unhoused and renter populations. Though Black individuals make up just about 13 percent of the overall population, they represented 40 percent of the unhoused population before the pandemic. Within White America, the exact opposite is taking place. Though 76 percent of the overall population is White, only 49 percent of unhoused individuals are white.

Before the pandemic, the eviction process in D.C. impacted 1 in 9 renters, mostly in communities east of the Anacostia River, where the majority of residents are Black and where the city’s densest concentration of low-income households are located. According to a recent study from Georgetown University, Ward 2, which has the lowest poverty rates and smallest percentage of Black residents in D.C., saw fewer than 3 out of every 100 renters receive an eviction filing in a sample year (2018), compared with 25 out of every 100 renters in Wards 7 and 8. The pandemic has further underscored the need to have a racially aware solution to housing. By September 2020, 23 percent of Black renters in the United States had fallen behind on rent when compared with 10 percent of white renters. I could provide more data, more numbers, all of which represent more Black faces out on the street or moving from friend’s couch to friend’s couch, but the conclusion is clear: Access to stable housing is a racial justice imperative. If we provide housing as a human right, we will be leaps and bounds ahead on solving race-based poverty in D.C.

And yet in a city that has declared that Black lives matter — writing it right there on 16th Street NW for all the world to see — our leaders have repeatedly squandered opportunities to be forward-thinking in making real change in the lives of Black people in D.C. We cannot claim to be a “sanctuary city” if D.C. continues to enact laws that prove there is no sanctuary here.

Support programs, vouchers and rental assistance can all make dents in the housing crisis disproportionately harming communities of color, but they will continue to fall short. The recent Rent and Utility Assistance Program in D.C., for instance, funded with $350 million in federal support as part of the American Recovery Act, creates fundamental structural concerns that again place the burden on tenants rather than better-resourced landlords to secure assistance. We’ve encountered barriers to these types of programs before on behalf of the communities we serve: the need for consistent Internet connection, time to apply and access to resources that are only provided in English. Creating this additional gatekeeping to time-stretched and resource-limited low-income D.C. residents will work against them and not with them. These pseudo-solutions also place an undue strain on direct service agencies that try to plug the resource hole created by such systems to help residents apply and receive the assistance due to them.

D.C.’s myriad programs purporting to create housing security also fall short. A guaranteed right to housing means a long-term investment in residents and the elimination of programs that are consistently ineffective. Ultimately, housing ends homelessness and housing insecurity. Although perhaps not intended and time-limited, with the eviction moratorium the D.C. Council has already taken a step toward giving tenants a guaranteed right to housing. Yet, even recently, there was a call to lift the moratorium for a small number of cases. With all we know about who is renting and who is being evicted in D.C., decisions like these will continue to harm Black and other people of color.

Recently, California started to make moves toward declaring housing a human right, thanks the activism of Moms 4 Housing. What accompanies that declaration is a slate of policies, funding and assistance that fully address the needs of the unhoused and housing insecure. As more people realize the interconnectedness of housing and other needs, the idea of housing as a human right is picking up steam. D.C. should be on the right side of history when it comes to housing and be in the lead on this type of bold agenda. We should be the first in the nation to achieve housing as a human right. We have the funding and progressive ideals as well as the extreme wealth inequality and racial segregation that, when combined, create the perfect laboratory for progressive action on measures that could eradicate race-based poverty through universal housing. What we seem to lack is the political will to bravely step into this progressive future where everyone is housed affordably and reliably; where a city is measured not by the health and well-being of its wealthiest and most privileged faction but by those who have the least among us. Because of systems that have worked against Black residents for decades, dismantling barriers to realize a true right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is in order and long overdue. And it includes a right to housing.

The recent passing of the Reach Act — the Racial Equity Achieves Results policy — was a step in the right direction to achieve these goals. But, without actual application, the Reach Act is toothless. Residents in D.C. need a government that will take action against the systemic racism that is impacting their right to housing. Housing advocates urge the D.C. Council and the mayor to use this moment of great and mounting need, this moment where a national spotlight is on the impacts of long standing systemic racism, this moment of a resurgence of civil rights activism to not only declare housing a human right under the law in D.C. but also make it a reality, becoming the first jurisdiction in the United States to make significant progress on the housing crisis and, in doing so, achieve an end to race-based poverty. It is within our resources to do so. It is within our power to do so. It is within our sights to do so. Do we have the will to do so?

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Rents for the rich are plummeting. Rents for the poor are rising. Why?

Yuliya Panfil: Gentrification in the D.C. area pushes people from homes and away from transit

Minnie Elliott: There can be no racial equity in D.C. when Black and Brown families are being displaced

Lisa Wise: Housing justice is a basic human right

Michele Steeb: Family homelessness in D.C. is growing