By unanimous resolution last week, the city of San Diego declared that “housing is a human right.” But no one knows exactly what that means.
The city went on to reaffirm “its commitment to providing more housing services geared toward putting a roof over the head of every San Diegan.”
Quick to downplay the legal implications, city attorney Dan Eaton said of the resolution, “it’s pretty clear it doesn’t have any legal effect.” So, what does the declaration mean?
The city council rightly values housing as “a component of a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.” The resolution affirms that “housing provides stability and security” and that individuals “should have a secure, peaceful, and dignified place to live.” Nearly everyone agrees on the central importance of housing for human dignity. But if declaring housing to be a human right means that the government is obligated to provide housing with no strings attached, won’t that result in human disempowerment rather than security, peace, or dignity?
Protecting something of value, regardless of “human right” status, differs greatly from providing that object of value. When the government protects human rights like life, speech, and marriage, it prevents those rights from being wrongfully stripped from us. It does not provide them for us. For example, the government is not responsible for keeping us alive, platforming our speech, or offering us suitable spouses. This is a good thing. Maybe the real question, then, is not whether housing is a human right, but whether government is responsible for providing things, like housing, that are central to dignity and quality of life.
Many things add dignity and quality to human lives — safe homes, fulfilling jobs, healthy relationships, and nourished bodies. The government allows human lives to flourish when it acts to protect the pursuits of these things, not when it becomes the provider of them. With over half of the unsheltered-homeless population citing mental illness or substance abuse as a cause for their loss of housing, the narrative that more affordable housing will solve the problem is tired and untrue.
Commendably, at the end of their resolution, the council acknowledges that ensuring their neighbors are housed requires “policies that address the root causes of homelessness.” Yet, nowhere in the resolution do the council members name the root causes of homelessness or provide a plan to address them. Governments that use inordinate amounts of taxpayer dollars to create free housing with no requirements for treatment or training fail to address the root causes of homelessness. Worse, free housing with no responsibility isolates suffering individuals and deprives them of ownership and accountability.
The people of San Diego, whether housed or unhoused, gain nothing from the City Council’s resolution that “housing is a human right.” At best, it is an empty promise of an unclarified ideal: housing for those who have none. At worst, it obligates the government to spend millions on rooms that leave those suffering from addiction, mental illness, and the traumas of homelessness isolated and alone to continue suffering.
Caitlyn Axe is the Program Coordinator for Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth and Poverty