Housing deprivation is a manifest sign of injustice in many cities. It occurs when individuals either cannot access housing or when they face a high risk of losing their homes, with the implication that people end up living in the streets or in precarious situations. According to United Nations Habitat, 1.8 billion people lack adequate housing. In Latin America, housing deprivation affects more than 28 million lower-income households. In Brazil, data from the 2022 Census shows that 281.472 people are homeless and from the Brazilian IBGE estimates that more than 5 million people are living in irregular houses. Questions that arise are: why this is an injustice, and how can we best address it?
In recent years, these questions have gained increasing scholarly attention, in particular following the book on the subject written by Casey Dawkins (2021) and the work done by Katy Wells (2019; 2022). Both philosophers claim that housing deprivation is an injustice because it violates basic ideas of fundamental human needs – which have material and relational dimensions. However, they propose resourcist housing policies as a solution. In this post, although I agree with them that housing deprivation requires a multidimensional normative account, I argue that we should go beyond a resourcist policy.
Casey Dawkins advances the idea of a necessary criterion for justifying housing policies. He named it “civic equality” and explained that it is grounded in two egalitarian principles: moral equality – equal institutional concern and respect – and relational equality – equal treatment among citizens. He claims that even if the civic equality criterion is consistent with a sufficientarian distribution of housing (which focuses on distributing a minimally adequate home for all), it still calls for policies capable of reducing extreme inequalities in the consumption of housing services. For Dawkins, the main proposal to mitigate housing deprivation in the US involves a monthly housing allowance for those experiencing the most severe housing needs, a direct tax on housing consumption (which is a form of negative consumption tax), and, finally, a housing wealth increment tax as a measure for equalizing services among different neighbourhoods.
I agree that when justifying transformation in urban areas, we should go beyond a resourcist paradigm, and look at the way people are treated through a relational normative lens. However, I disagree with the way he addresses the inequalities related to housing needs, which ends up amounting to a merely distributive policy without any concern for political engagement, social ties and communication between individuals. We need a more robust account in order to deal with housing deprivation. One able to go beyond resources and transform the way people from different social backgrounds, races, ages and genders interact with each other.
Katy Wells, who writes against the background of housing deprivation in the United Kingdom, supports a policy that guarantees the positive right of an individual to exercise a set of property rights over a self-contained living space of a certain standard for a minimum term of 3 years. For her, shared living spaces, as social housing policies, represent a violation of housing justice. This because shared living spaces affect the individual’s freedom of association, in general, and the individual freedom to refuse to engage in any kind of intimate association in particular. However, such a policy is, at a certain degree, blind to the reality of many individuals and groups, and may be too expensive. For some people, shared living spaces are a means of protecting their lives and also relate to their well-being, such as in the case of elderly people and of those who would be happy to build up a collective and collaborative life. Furthermore, individualised spaces may require large scale construction project going against any standard of sustainability entailed by the United Nations new urban agenda (UN Habitat 2017: 7). Finally, such a policy may reinforce neoliberal values based on private property and individualism, encouraging atomised living practices in which people rarely connect with each other for socialization or political reasons.
I contend that both Dawkins and Wells’s proposals fail at addressing the problem of housing in its full extent. For one, the dynamics of the private market and how it can exacerbate the issue of housing deprivation is underexplored. Regulatory measures on the number of living spaces individuals and companies can accumulate and the maximum period housing can remain vacant could play a significant role in moderating housing deprivation, for example. Another issue is that fundamentally, housing as a living space is essential for human life and should, therefore, be protected against becoming a means of financial gain. Finally, due to its significant social component, housing policies should be designed in a participatory manner, making space for the contribution of those affected by the issue and aiming at achieving urban justice. At the very least, housing policies are more than a resourcist demand and should look to accommodate a range of formats that suit its beneficiaries’ lifestyles rather than what experts and politicians imagine those to be.
Dawkins, Casey J (2021). Just Housing: The Moral Foundations of American Housing Policy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
United Nations Habitat.2017. The New Urban Agenda. Habitat III Secretariat. https://habitat3.org/ wp-content/uploads/NUA-English.pdf
Wells, Kate (2019). The Right to Housing. Political Studies, 67 (2), 406–421: https://doi.org/10.1177/0032321718769009
Wells, Kate. (2022) Homelessness and freedom. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy . 1-20: https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2022.2057025
*I would like to thank Marcela Kromer for helpful comments on my earlier draft.