Here’s What a ‘Housing as a Human Right’ Bill Looks Like

The proposed housing program in Maryland would guard against any form of discrimination in determining who can live in the government-run units.

[Photo: An illustration of a home with monetary currency in front of it and text reading
“Affordable housing is definitely a human right and this legislation is starting a needed conversation about why a thriving society requires that people aren’t spending the majority of their incomes just trying to pay rent,” said Diane May, a spokesperson for Our Revolution. Shutterstock

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Creating a system in which everyone has access to affordable housing isn’t so much a futuristic utopian project as it is a throwback to the politics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

That’s what Maryland state Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery) told Rewire.News this month after he filed legislation that would create a social housing program to ensure everyone in the state of 6 million people has access to housing. Stewart’s bill, the Social Housing Act of 2019, would create a $2.5 billion trust fund from which the state could create and maintain housing units. The legislation is first of its kind, Stewart said.

“Call it the ‘public option for housing,'” he said.

A social housing system, commonplace throughout Europe, would differ from traditional public housing programs in the United States because it would be open to everyone, varying in price according to a person’s income. Stewart said that the universal nature of social housing could garner political support across the socioeconomic spectrum—widespread support that Medicaid, for example, lacks, making it vulnerable to political machinations.

“I don’t think this idea is particularly radical,” said Stewart, who emerged from a competitive Democratic primary to win his house seat in 2018. “This is what FDR said many times. He was adamant about this …. Whether or not you have a roof over your head shouldn’t be entirely dependent on [one’s financial status].”

It’s true: Roosevelt, as part of the New Deal, signed the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act into law, providing $500 million in loans for housing projects across the United States. Roosevelt’s “second Bill of Rights,” which proposed a collection of economic rights to go alongside the political rights in the original, charged it was the “right of every family to [have] a decent home.”

While the social housing bill has little chance of making headway this year in the Maryland Legislature and would surely meet opposition from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Stewart said injecting the concept of social housing into the political mainstream is critical to the public embracing housing not as a luxury, but as a human right.

“It’s important to expand the limits of what is acceptable to discuss in American politics. I believe there’s real value in putting bold ideas on the table and you don’t have to be on the federal level to do that …. This is the kind of legislation that can shift the Overton window,” he said, referring to the range of ideas in a nation’s political discourse. “That excites me.” 

Housing created through the state’s social housing system, Stewart said, would have to meet high standards of quality and would pay fair wages to construction workers and others involved with the projects. The housing program would guard against any form of discrimination in determining who can live in the government-run units.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) brought housing as a human right to the forefront of her 2018 run for Congress, deriding current policy that has made “housing in the United States … a playground for wealthy developers” in her campaign platform. Working families are “rent burdened,” Ocasio-Cortez charged. While she didn’t mention social housing in her campaign platform, she did lend support for expanding access to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and permanently funding the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a federal program that doles out money to states to increase the number of affordable homes.

Along with establishing a multibillion-dollar trust fund, Stewart’s social housing legislation would bring back a millionaires’ tax that expired in 2010. Incomes of more than $1 million were taxed at an extra 6.25 percent under the tax for wealthy households, which was in place for three years in Maryland. Maryland has the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States, according to financial publisher Kiplinger.

Almost 2 million more people in the United States today are spending between 30 percent and 50 percent of their income on rent than they were before the 2008 housing market crash, according to data from the left-leaning People’s Policy Project, which published a report last year on social housing that inspired Stewart to craft his legislation.

Nine million households in the United States spent half their income on rent in 2007, while 11 million households spent that much on rent in 2017. And the price of housing has affected people of varying incomes, as the “share of households making over $100,000 and renting has increased from 12 percent in 2006 to 18 percent in 2016, while stagnant or declining wages for many demographics mean a down payment is simply out of reach,” according to the People Policy’s Project report.

Maryland’s homeless population, meanwhile, has risen by around 1,000 people over the past four years, as the state has a higher homeless rate than neighboring Virginia.

Matt Bruenig, president of the People’s Policy Project, wrote last April that social housing would prove far more cost efficient than private developers creating more housing—much of it pricey—since local governments already own a portion of the land. “It means that, unlike a private developer, municipalities could have zero land acquisition costs in many cases,” Bruenig wrote. 

The efficiency of social housing would also stem from interest rates on government debt, which “are lower than the interest rates on almost any other kinds of financing, including the bank loans relied upon by private developers,” he wrote. Building affordable housing would have the added benefit of forcing local landlords to compete with the prices of units created through a social housing program, advocates said. 

Diane May, a spokesperson for Our Revolution, which backed Stewart’s run for the Maryland Legislature, said any reaction painting the social housing legislation as radical “shows how both parties have forgotten about the poor and working people of this country.” 

“Ending poverty shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” May told Rewire.News. “Affordable housing is definitely a human right, and this legislation is starting a needed conversation about why a thriving society requires that people aren’t spending the majority of their incomes just trying to pay rent.”

The People’s Policy Project points to Austria as a successful model for social housing policy. Around 80 percent of people in Austria are income eligible for social housing units, while 3 in 5 residents of Vienna, Austria, “live in houses owned, built or managed by the municipal government,” according to the paper. Subsidized rents in Vienna are based on a property’s cost, ensuring “a much higher quality of life in publicly owned housing than exists in the United States, and indeed in much of Europe. ”

The United States, People’s Policy Project researchers write, is “almost alone in the fierce resistance of the overwhelming majority of both its major parties to the involvement of federal and local government in the direct provision of affordable housing.”