Housing Rights, Citizen Rights, And Human Dignity: The Case Of Voting While Unhoused

M. Christian Green

Photo of Johannesburg, South Africa by Evan Bench on Wikimedia (CC-BY-2.0).

This essay is part of a virtual conference series “The Roles of Law, Religion and Housing Through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)” sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. This series features scholars, experts, and practitioners who examine global challenges of homelessness, housing policy and housing vulnerability. You can browse all essays and view video presentations from the series here.

This symposium came about from concerns on two countries, the United States and South Africa, about housing as a human right. Particularly, it stems from a realization about how housing rights as human rights—as realized in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—are under-recognized and under-realized in both national contexts. In South Africa, the problem was broadcast to the world in news coverage of the terrible deaths by fire of squatters in a downtown Johannesburg building. In the U.S., the problem is manifested in the growing ranks of Americans experiencing homelessness, most often as a result of factors such as addiction, unemployment, and other personal and economic problems, but also from causes such as natural disasters, especially climate-change driven ones, that destroy their homes in ways that make it difficult or impossible to rebuild. From where I write in Louisiana, this is a lesson learned two decades ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As we learned in Katrina and on many occasions since, the threats to housing rights that are revealed and exacerbated by disasters, whether natural or political in nature, threaten other civil and political rights, including voting rights. The connection between housing right and voting rights will be the focus of this essay.

            Housing advocates in the U.S. question the very terminology used to describe the problem. Some prefer the term “houseless” instead of “homeless,” among other reasons because those who are without housing often include families, whose webs of human relationships and emotional connection, rather than the structures that shelter them, are deemed to be what makes a “house” into a “home.” Others prefer the term “unhoused” to emphasize that in fully developed countries such as the U.S., which could afford to provide housing to its citizens, some are left unhoused by deliberate policies of government. These policies might include failure to incentivize affordable housing that is inhabited by owners and often becomes the most important source of financial equity in their lives versus non-resident investors who drive up the cost of housing overall and thus perpetuate a vicious cycle. They may include policies that may reflect a sense that those deprived of housing are deficient in some sense and not even worthy of temporary housing assistance. In some policy circles there can be a preference for taking care of basic human needs for those who lack them “through no fault of their own.” There have even been politicians who have fears that those temporarily displaced from housing through weather events might “use their hospitality against them” if offered shelter.

This lack of solicitude for human needs is what the United Nations SDGs are meant to combat. Interestingly, while there is no SDG specifically dedicated to housing, the venerable and estimable NGO Habitat for Humanity has described how housing rights are integral to and directly or indirectly contribute to all of the SDGs. The UN’s attention to housing began with the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements and Sustainable Urban Development, held in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976. That conference came to be known as Habitat I. Twenty years later, a subsequent conference in Istanbul, Turkey, known as Habitat II, produced the Habitat Agenda.

The UN commitment to housing rights also preceded the Habitat Agenda in several international agreements. From the very inception of the UN, Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 proclaimed, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services,” among other social goods. In 1966, in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), states recognized the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. In 1969, Article 10 of the Declaration on Social Progress and Development called for “provision for all, particularly persons in low income groups and large families, of adequate housing and community services.” In this way, housing rights became human rights in international human rights frameworks and international treaties and covenants for social and economic development.

Housing rights are, however, notably absent from the ICESCR’s sister legislation in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The omission seems reflective of the larger distinction that some nations—most notably, the United States—have made between the “generations” of rights. In the context of the late twentieth century Cold War, the U.S., wary of communist and socialist frameworks, committed to the “first generation” civil and political rights, but did not commit to the “second generation” economic, social and cultural rights. And the U.S. remains behind in its provision of rights, even as the world is increasingly moving on to recognize a “third generation” of solidarity rights and even a “fourth generation” of digital rights. For an advanced nation like the U.S., decisions against recognizing some rights carry the whiff of ideology. For South Africa and other still-developing nations, full realization of second-generation rights, like housing, are still subject to the “margin of appreciation” doctrine, according to which they are accorded a concession to provide for such rights to the extent feasible, toward the end of progressive provision and expansion. For example, the South African Constitution recognizes a right to “adequate housing,” such that “the state must take reasonable and other legislative measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of this right.”

 In the U.S., there is a slow but growing realization of the connection between housing rights, as economic rights, and an increasingly important civil and political right—namely, the right to vote. The relationship between housing rights and voting rights turns out to be very significant, as voting rights, both federally and in the states, are inextricably linked to where one resides. Voters in many jurisdictions are required to register to vote on forms that require a fixed address. If voters move to an address, do not receive and return an address confirmation card that is mailed to them, and do not vote or have other contact with their local Registrar of Voters during a specified amount of time, their names may be purged from the voter rolls.

Whether one has a fixed address where one can be registered to vote, can determine whether one can vote at all. Those who work with populations who are unhoused or in transitional housing, report that that their clients not only lack voter registration cards, but often a wide range of citizenship documents, including birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and other government-issued forms of identification. Receipt and possession of these documents, too, often requires an address to which to mail them and a place to store them for safekeeping. For this reason, registering unhoused and traditionally housed people, so that they can exercise their right to vote, is hindered by their lack of housing. In the U.S., it is estimated that less than 10% of the homeless population votes. In some parts of the U.S., voter registration rates are actually pretty high (for example, about 85% of eligible voters are registered to vote in Louisiana), and the real election problem is getting people to turn out to vote. But the presence of vulnerable populations in our midst, such as the unhoused, who are unregistered as voters and often lack other basic citizenship documents, is a striking failure of our living up to our constitutional guarantee of “one person, one vote” and of basic principles of human dignity and human rights.

The good news is that work can be done to address the disenfranchisement of the unhoused. In fact, in many jurisdictions, religious organizations, and other community organizations can play a role in helping to restore citizenship, dignity, and the right to vote unhoused people. In some jurisdictions, places of worship may receive mail on unhoused people’s behalf, providing the fixed address necessary to register to vote and to receive other important government and citizenship correspondence. Houses of worship can also host public events where those without housing can receive assistance in getting registered to vote, including registering for the underlying identification documents required not only for voter registration, but also to be able to cast one’s vote at a polling place.

            The interrelation of housing rights with other citizenship rights—including the right to vote—is an under-appreciated dimension of the “housing rights as human rights” conversation. It should not take a dreadful hurricane or a terrible building fire to remind us that housing rights are not only fundamentally necessary in the social and economic sense, but are also crucial to civil and political engagement. Indeed, they are indices of democracy and social development. Both access to housing and access to the ballot are crucial determinants not only of social and economic status, but also of human dignity and citizenship. Considering the relationship between housing rights and citizenship rights can enhance national growth as supported in the SDGs. And while the SDGs currently are invoked and discussed vastly more in the developing world than in more advanced societies, the U.S., in particular, might do well to embrace the SDGs in areas like housing rights and voting rights as a lens and a benchmark for assessing how “advanced” it actually is. ♦

M. Christian Green is a senior editor and senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Her areas of scholarly expertise are law, religion, human rights, and global ethics.

Recommended Citation

Green, M. Christian. “Housing Rights, Citizen Rights, And Human Dignity: The Case Of Voting While Unhoused By M. Christian Green.” Canopy Forum, March 20, 2024. https://canopyforum.org/2024/03/20/housing-rights-citizen-rights-and-human-dignity-the-case-of-voting-while-unhoused/.