Housing As A Human Right: A Transformative Agenda For Colorado’s 1st District And Beyond
-by Andres Bernal,
Senior Policy Advisor for the Neal Walia Campaign
In every major city in this country we have been conditioned to normalize people living on the streets, most often already representing marginalized or vulnerable communities. But to really grasp the magnitude of the human crisis at play, we must consider families, including children, that may be on street corners, in addition to the thousands living in homeless shelters and even more that are on the verge of losing their housing security.
In Colorado, this is no exception. The state ranked 5th in the nation when it comes to sheltered chronically homeless individuals. Furthermore, metro Denver was among the country's top three cities with the highest number of veterans experiencing homelessness, trailing only Los Angeles and New York City. A common metric conducted by local agencies on behalf of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, is the Point in Time count. The PIT count is an unduplicated count on a single night of the people in a community who are experiencing homelessness. This tool has been criticized by advocates as an inadequate method for quantifying housing demand with a tendency to undercount those experiencing homelessness by significant margins.
More accurate and far reaching methods such as those employed by the Metro Denver Housing Initiative and published in their 2022 annual State of Homelessness report found that 32,233 individuals accessed services related to homelessness between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. When it comes to unsheltered individuals, Jamie Rife, Executive Director at MHDI, noted that while the PIT count in 2020 showed 1,561 individuals staying in an unsheltered location, what we see now is that over the course of a year, this number is 12,855. Across the state, the Department of Local Affairs’ Office of Homelessness Initiatives found that over 53,000 individuals covered by Colorado’s Medicaid system in 2019 were without stable housing and 23,000 students identified as experiencing homelessness, doubled up, or unstably housed during the 2018-2019 school year.
Thousands of unsheltered people in Denver live on the streets, in cars, under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in camping in open areas. This has unfortunately mainly peaked as a highly polarizing debate about encampments and sweeps. Yet lost in these debates about the right to occupy public spaces when unhoused is the more fundamental question: why do we allow homelessness to exist in the United States of America to begin with?
It is difficult to think of many more dehumanizing realities to our contemporary society than homelessness. While the pandemic has greatly exacerbated the problem, housing insecurity is one outcome of broader systemic problems and institutional vulnerabilities that have been intensifying for decades. In terms of where and how we live, it is also part of an affordable housing crisis, a problem that affects our country’s working and middle classes across income levels. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that there are no counties in the United States where a minimum wage earner working 40 hours a week can afford a typical two bedroom apartment. Nearly half of renters are considered cost burdened and almost two thirds say they cannot afford and do not intend to pursue home ownership. In other words, rents and home prices are too damn high. Working professionals are struggling to get by and more of us are being pushed onto the streets. Indeed the forces pushing people into homelessness are interconnected to the forces pushing costs through the roof.
The Challenges of State and Municipal Policy
Different states and cities across the country have attempted different policy responses that involve the related but distinct policy areas of homelessness and affordable housing. In Denver, Colorado, like others, it has included inclusionary zoning policies or the requirement that new developments have more affordable units. However, the Colorado State Supreme Court “Telluride” decision has limited the ability of municipalities to regulate rents in an attempt to maintain and incentivise more housing development in general.
In Denver alone, organizations like "The Gathering Place" as well as hundreds of other groups and individuals work to connect people with services. In addition to rental assistance programs, motel and hotel vouchers are provided if you meet certain criteria. While helpful, and obviously better than nothing, much of the reasoning behind these approaches and a reaction to or continue to rely on the logic of speculative markets, competition and quantity independent of systemic relationships to the distribution of income and employment, health indicators, infrastructure, and just plainly prioritizing social objectives over profits. An adequate holistic analysis and effective scope for meeting objectives more appropriately falls into the purview of Federal policy that is responsible to the common good and capable of responding to dynamics that transcend individual state lines and boundaries.
Colorado’s TABOR or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights amendment to the state constitution significantly restricts the already constrained financial capability of state and local governments. In fact, it is considered the most restrictive government spending limitation of any state in the nation. The amendment firmly grounds the state’s fiscal operations in the historically conservative and inaccurate taxpayer identity myth while limiting the growth in collections of state balance sheet revenue over time by returning funds to individuals that fall over a specified limit. These constraints overburden housing advocates at local levels with tasks that require at minimum Federal support and legislation. It also fosters individualism and encourages working class and poverty based resentments.
Going Big on Housing: A Progressive Alternative
As a team, the Neal Walia campaign embraces the urgency of inspiring the public towards believing in bold agendas and a Congress that works in the public interest over private and individual benefit. While we have seen this most present in the discussion around climate, housing is no different and in fact, interconnected. Our challenges with affordability and homelessness are currently unsustainable and will only worsen. Together with Neal, we’ve gathered some of the most creative and impactful propositions around to articulate a clear path forward towards radically transforming housing in the United States. While it is not intended to be exhaustive, our vision seeks to provide an overview and open the door to more ideas that can further accelerate improvements.
Intentionality is important. When it comes to housing, a legally enforceable rights based framework provides the basis for mission oriented policy making that does not concede to market fundamentalism or the excessive influence of big donors. Housing for All and a #HomesGuarantee provides this framework and serves as a vital policy launchpad. We must do everything possible to center housing and homelessness debate in the United States first and foremost through this framing.
Progressives in Congress must push for a National Housing and Homelessness or a People’s Commission to collect data, bring together community centered experts and advocates, and develop networks that facilitate and coordinate administrative capacity, democratic accountability, and communication across silos and levels of government. A congressional commission allows us to declare housing and lack-there-of, a national priority. Lastly, a commission gives us the ability to read data and policy design not in a vacuum but intersecting with areas like climate and environment, gender, disability, racial equity, and social determinants of health including the importance of quality universal healthcare.
A rights based Homes Guarantee framework ensures that whether you rent or own, you have a dignified affordable home. This means legislating a Tenants Bill of Rights that among other things includes common sense protections like “good cause” evictions, the right to counsel in court, and the right to organize and to legal enforcement of rights, as detailed by People’s Action Home’s Guarantee platform. Federal policy has historically privileged home ownership over renters and as a consequence the most well-off and socially exclusionary neighborhoods. Nonetheless, the term “bank tenets” was developed to refer to home-owners trapped within predatory lending and financial institutions that lead to forced displacement and subpar living conditions. Housing for All policy must therefore include properly enforced financial and mortgage regulation as well as public lending and grant alternatives, anti-discrimination policy, and consumer protections such as the elimination of obscene move-in fees.
Bringing Down Prices
A housing for all agenda has a lot of existing work to draw on that improves the mainstream debate and our understanding of best practices when it comes to securing affordability. A vital strategy involves getting land value and real estate off of a speculative free-for-all spiral dominated by powerful interests and price setting monopolists. Many progressives in the former Presidential race including Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro called for far bigger investments and expansions of the Section 8 housing vouchers program as well as a national change in zoning laws to allow for more developments with affordable mandates in more expensive areas to overcome NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitudes towards mixed income neighborhoods and a history of racist segregation. Most importantly, the 2020 Sanders campaign stood out by calling for national rent control that caps rent increases at 3 percent or 1.5 times the consumer price index (whichever is higher). While rent control does not replace the importance of ensuring strong wages, true full employment, and price stability, it is a critical step towards limiting the upward pressure on rents, mortgages, and land from speculative markets thus giving families some needed security and relief.
Many advocacy organizations such as the folks at People’s Action have also emphasized the importance of stabilizing land and property values against speculation by implementing a land value tax and tax on vacancies, absentee out-of-state ownership, and exploitative property flipping that turns desperately needed affordable land and property into a volatile game of casino capitalism at the expense of people’s lives. To complement the disincentivizing of speculation, federal policy must also facilitate the transfer of unproductive and or exploitative land/property practices through various tiers of taxation towards municipal buyouts onto public and cooperative ownership including a plan to support the expansion of community land trusts.
Increasing Housing Supply and Community Control
Critics of common sense rent control, regulation, and tenant protections, particularly orthodox technocrats and economists, have brought up concerns over a fall in supply and consequently housing shortages. However, no progressive housing agenda is complete without a robust plan to expand the housing stock that shifts the what and the how of our building strategy.
After decades of declining Federal support for the construction and maintenance of affordable housing, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit LIHTC, which provides tax credits to private investors in affordable projects, has become the primary option for expanding the affordable housing supply. A report by the Urban Institute details why the LIHTC is so important for a housing safety net as well as its success and challenges. In it, the report describes that while the LIHTC has become fundamental in the development of low income affordable housing, especially in vulnerable areas such as rural communities and communities of color, 1) its design does not represent a permanent solution; 2) it was dramatically disrupted and reduced by the 2008 financial crisis; 3) its future has been compromised by recent policy such as 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which which reduces corporate income tax rates and therefore has lessened the financial incentive for corporations to make equity investments in tax credits.
Protecting and strengthening affordable housing development through programs like the LIHTC as an immediate support system to housing affordability advocates is important but it is not enough given its vulnerability to tax policy and “market shifts”. As noted by the report, its future as well as housing affordability more broadly is intertwined with federal housing programs at large.
In order to build upon, improve, and go beyond the LIHTC model, Congress must explore a Social Housing Model such as the world renowned system in the city of Vienna. In Vienna, and across much of Europe: social housing refers to an umbrella term for rights based mixed income affordable housing across variations of public and private development and ownership models. Over the same decades that U.S. housing has been in crisis, affordable housing in Vienna has been steadily on the rise through the social housing approach. 40% of this rising social housing stock consists of municipal ownership, non profit ownership, and a sector of Limited Profit Housing Associations which reduces rents by half without compromising quality or passing on costs to consumers and tenants. Lastly, social housing in Vienna is mixed in that it covers 80% of all household incomes with permanently allocated shares for low income tenants.
If Vienna was able to achieve a beautiful mixed income social housing sector as a municipality, the United States Federal government has no excuse. But there is hope. We already see the seeds of this transformation in existing congressional proposals like Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All Act which would authorize the construction of 12 million new public housing and private permanently affordable rental units. Given the long history and present of brutal segregationist and corrupt management of public housing in the United States, we must also implement and coordinate a cross federal state and local initiative through the Department of Housing and Urban Development that facilitates transitions of public housing towards cooperative tenant control and management. Expanded federal investments in direct job creation, living wage laws, a federal job guarantee, universal public healthcare, student debt cancellation, and tuition free higher education are complementary policies that together with a significant increase in federal support to municipal governments to expand civic participation, non and limited profit associations, and direct community control, will function as anti-displacement protection against gentrification and toxic inequality.
Furthermore, a Homes Guarantee agenda must work in conjunction with Green New Deal projects that prioritize decarbonization, green jobs, and environmental justice. The Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez sponsored Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, for example, would commit to $180 Billion over 10 years in order to retrofit and upgrade 1.2 million existing Federally administered homes while prioritizing the local hiring of community members and tenants themselves.
Protecting tenants, reducing prices, and shifting our approach to housing and economic development towards the objective of putting human needs and flourishing over private profits and elitist power goes a long way to secure affordability and keep people in their homes. Nonetheless, we must commit to openly and aggressively eradicating the condition of homelessness in the United States. As noted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness Congress must expand its support of HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grants program as well as the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. We must continue to push for Medicare for All and invest in a state of the art, holistic, preventative, culturally competent, and community centered public mental health and substance abuse system. Moreover, Congress has no excuse in increasing the necessary support to our veterans and their families while holding the military industrial complex accountable for its abuse of U.S. troops.
In addition to these common sense recommendations, we must also improve our general strategy by resourcing and supporting proven solutions. Some best pracitces include rewarding and supporting city level public officials that make ending homelessness a municipal priority by committing to mission oriented cross agency collaboration, rapid response prevention and rehousing programs, better outreach and low entry coordination into rehousing, anti discrimination racial equity models, improved data sharing and transparency, and non-construction housing stock expansion by identifying vacancies for conversions to social housing. Another major component is providing adequate case worker support for a more individually catered treatment to transition the unhoused towards a stable living.
For the vast majority of communities in the United States, housing is painful and anxiety inducing. As professionals, our own frustrations with affordability, rising rents, and home prices are not disconnected from the tragedies we see on our streets. This has been the result of treating homes as a means to get rich and not as what gives us shared stability and life. But we are better than this. We do not have to be defined by the abandonment and indifference of failed leadership and our past. We can act. We can vote. We can be a part of something bigger than ourselves. By shifting our resources away from endless profits and concentrations of power, we can create the neighborhoods of the future. Something beautiful we can be proud of. When we look around and no longer see desperation on the streets, we know we will have taken a step towards uniting the betterment of ourselves with the betterment of all.