When we talk about housing, we talk about it in terms of the market. We talk about housing supply and housing demand and interest rates and mortgages. We talk about high rents and housing developments. We talk about these things as if they are immutable facts of life.

We grouse about rising costs and tightening budgets, but at the end of the day, we accept the fundamental premise of the market: that the housing we get is the housing we deserve, that people who lose their housing bring it on themselves, that those who lack housing could get it if they only tried hard enough.

When we talk about housing in these terms, we talk about housing as if it is an issue devoid of moral content. The market is, in our collective imagining, amoral. It is neither good nor evil; it is a self-regulating force of nature that delineates the realm of the possible. Rents will keep rising. Tenants who can’t pay will be evicted. So it goes.

Hawaii Kai housing real estate East Honolulu Maunalua Bay aerial1

East Honolulu is home to some of the priciest houses in Hawaii. Housing, the author says, is a right.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This is not the only way to talk about housing. Housing is not just a good, exchanged in transactions between producer and consumer. Housing is something more: It is a basic need of every human being. This is not to say that market forces don’t exist or that economic realities don’t need to be confronted. They do, and they must.

It is to suggest, however, that a paradigm shift is in order. We could — we should — talk about housing differently. We should talk about housing as a right.

‘Pursuit Of Happiness’

In his landmark book “Evicted,” sociologist Matthew Desmond lays out a simple proposition: “The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have ‘certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Each of these three unalienable rights — so essential to the American character that the founders saw them as God-given — requires a stable home.”

This observation — so straightforward as to be basically self-evident — has the potential to radically alter the way we talk about housing. In affirming that housing is a right, we reject the logic of the market insofar as it leads us to conclude that people only deserve adequate shelter if they can pay for it. In affirming that housing is a right, we deem it unacceptable that millions of people throughout the land, the vast majority of them working tirelessly to provide for themselves and their families, are forced to live in squalid conditions. We affirm, as Desmond puts it, “that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American.”

While this paradigm shift would mark a significant departure from current rhetoric, it is nonetheless deeply rooted in our traditions. As Desmond points out, “We have affirmed provision in old age, 12 years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs.”

In this country, education and food are every individual’s birthright. We have collectively decided that fulfillment of those needs should not be conditioned on economic status. Why should housing, which is surely as fundamental a need, be any different?

“Housing is something more: It is a basic need of every human being.”

If housing is a right, then the market has failed us. While the economic forces driving housing prices are no doubt complex, it is unsurprising that the market, on its own, does not ensure that everyone is safely housed. It never has. Desmond traces this sordid history from medieval Europe into present-day America. Urban landlords recognized hundreds of years ago that they had no incentive to provide high-quality housing to the poor. Maximum profits came from housing the rich, or extracting what little money the poor had in return for crowded slums.

Even those sunk in the most desperate poverty had no way to get around the need for a roof over their heads, and this exposed them to massive financial exploitation. Racial discrimination compounded this dynamic. Ghetto slumlords found themselves with a “segregated and captive tenant base;” they had no reason not to overcharge the powerless residents of their dilapidated fiefdoms, and so they did.

This analysis helps to explain why, in many of America’s urban centers, rents in poor neighborhoods are only marginally lower than rents in more affluent areas. It also helps to explain why rents rarely go down much, even during major recessions. Everybody always needs a place to live.

Conclusions must be drawn with care. Desmond emphasizes that the solutions to the problems he identifies do not include “haranguing landlords as greedy or heartless.” Landlords are not “bad,” just as tenants are not “good.” People try to maximize their well-being. “If given the opportunity,” Desmond poses rhetorically, “would any of us price an apartment at half of what it could fetch?”

Of course not. Which is why, when we talk about housing, we must take a step back, and start with first principles. We must affirm, as Desmond does, that we refuse to accept a status quo under which large segments of the population wallow in severe material deprivation. We must affirm that housing is a human right. With that premise firmly established, we can then talk about what needs to be done.

We can talk about large-scale investment in low-income housing (which is not always synonymous with “affordable” housing, an imprecise term that is often used to disguise housing that is hardly affordable). We can talk about a universal housing voucher program, Desmond’s suggestion, variations of which have kept millions of people out of poverty around the world. We can talk about limitations on rent hikes so extreme that they can only be said to serve profit at the expense of people.

There is no easy way out of the present housing crisis.

But when we talk about housing, we should keep the things that matter most in the forefront of our minds. Crises demand bold action, and it is worth remembering that many of the rights and protections we now take for granted — child labor laws, the minimum wage, workplace safety regulations — were once seen as extreme. These protections were only established, Desmond reminds us, “when we chose to place the well-being of people above money.” “The well-being of people.” That’s a good place to start.

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