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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Housing as a Human Right

Tristia Bauman, Andrea Urton, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg stand together.

Tristia Bauman, Andrea Urton, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg stand together.

The issue of homelessness and unhoused populations is one of the “most vexing and painful issues in our communities,” says Phillip Boo Riley, professor of religious studies at SCU. Major urban centers such as New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and more, have well-documented struggles with controlling and helping unhoused populations. The case is no different for Sacramento, with government officials at all levels trying to find solutions for this complicated problem. Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento is one of those people, a leader for unhoused rights within his community in the state’s capital.

In Mayor Steinberg’s first ever visit to SCU–“it’s about time”, he says–he was welcomed by key figures in the conversation concerning homelessness. David DeCosse, director of Religious and Catholic Ethics at the Ethics Center, introduced and moderated the event, before handing the microphone to Professor Riley, who represented the SCU Unhoused Initiative. As Riley explained, the Unhoused Initiative is a collection of SCU professors and “an effort to coordinate Santa Clara’s talent” in order to address the issue of homelessness in an interdisciplinary manner. Riley proceeded to give an overview of the issue and its relevance to the campus and the greater San Jose community before introducing Mayor Steinberg and the rest of the panel. 

Aside from Mayor Steinberg, the other two panelists for the talk were impressive leaders in their own right. Response to the Mayor's comments was invited from two panelists working the front line with the unhoused community. The Mayor was joined by Tristia Bauman of the National Homelessness Law Center and Andrea Urton of HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County are both community leaders, facilitators, and passionate individuals. Both responded to the mayor’s talk and questions from the audience with thoughts and proposals of their own, adding alternative perspectives and ideas to the conversation. 

Mayor Steinberg discussed incorporating the human right to housing into law and the implications of the right for housing policy at the state and local levels. Steinberg began his talk with a warning about the “provocative” nature of his plan and invited critique from both his fellow panelists and the audience. He mentioned systemic poverty and high housing costs as some of the driving factors behind homelessness, explaining that 75% of Sacramento County’s unhoused population resides within the city of Sacramento. As the mayor of the city, Steinberg felt he has a responsibility to try and do more to address the issue. As to why it hadn’t been addressed earlier, Steinberg had a simple answer: the law doesn’t require anyone to do it. Most of the work, he said, is done by community organizations and non-profits like the ones that Bauman and Urton represent. Because there is no legal right to housing or any obligation for the city and county to provide services, nothing is done. 

Mayor Steinberg impressed upon the audience the importance of establishing a human right to housing, first in Sacramento and then across the state and the country. Legal rights for the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill have created uneven legal grounds from which to work, but Steinberg was confident that the right first step was the right to housing. Many, he said, will criticize his plan as “too little, too late”, and to that he says “they’re right.” However, a first step must be made somewhere, and without a beginning it will be impossible to address this complex issue. Public education is a right that we prioritize, and Steinberg thinks the right to housing could be treated the same, given a few years and the right legislation. “The law would push us to much greater places and with greater results,” said Steinberg. “It’s not a human right unless it’s a legal right.” As Steinberg acknowledged, the law is not the only pathway for solutions, but it is an important step towards ensuring protection for unhoused populations.

View the full webinar recording of A Human Right to Housing: State and Local Challenges on the Ethics Center's YouTube Channel.

During the course of the talk, questions were collected from both the in-person and webinar audience concerning Mayor Steinberg’s plan, his thoughts on certain matters, and his views on the issue. Time did not allow for all questions to be addressed by the panelists. Some of the unaddressed questions have been compiled below for future discussions and consideration.

  • How did Martin v. Boise change the way cities respond to homelessness and why do we not see cities taking more actions following that ruling?
  • What is the occupancy rate of the housing that is currently available?
  • Can you talk more about the obligation to accept housing?
  • How will we address the mental health of unhoused people when our workers are on strike?
  • Who will pay for a right to housing, shelter, and mental health services?
  • Are taxes on the middle class going to increase to meet the demand for more shelter?
  • What would the financial and structural framework look like for including mental health in public support like the Lanterman Act?
  • How can housing bureaucracies be made more efficient, effective, and accountable?
Oct 20, 2022


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