Do We Have a Right to Shelter?

Tent of homeless person on 6th Street Bridge with Los Angeles skyline in the background. California, USA. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Does everyone by virtue of their existence have a right to shelter? It’s a question the California legislature will consider in 2019.

Earlier this month, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, introduced Senate Bill 48. This Right to Shelter Bill “aims to ensure that homeless individuals and families throughout California have reasonable access to shelter, including navigation centers,” according to Wiener’s office. This “right” includes:

  • “A safe place to sleep and keep one’s belongings.
  • “An ability to access shelter without having to sign up on a daily basis.
  • “An ability to remain with one’s partner.
  • “An ability to access services necessary to stabilize one’s life and transition into supportive housing or permanent housing, including mental health, addiction treatment, and other services.”

When Wiener declares that “California’s housing crisis, along with our mental health and addiction challenges, are driving people into homelessness, and we must act,” we can’t disagree. But shelter is a right? On that we cannot agree.

In the case of SB 48, the “right to shelter” is fabricated out of the loss of others’ rights. Funding for shelter is provided only when others’ right to their property — their money — is violated. Obligating some to pay for others’ “rights” corrupts the proper understanding of what a right truly is. It assigns a burden to society that it did not ask for.

Rather than establishing a heretofore hidden right, the bill actually introduces a mandate, which is defined as “an official instruction or command.” Rights cannot be commanded into existence, nor can commands be interpreted as rights. A more fitting name for Wiener’s legislation would be the “Demand to Provide Shelter” Bill.

None of this means we’re indifferent to the homeless. Humans need housing. But issuing mandates isn’t going to solve the homeless problem, particularly in California, where the housing crisis has forced thousands to go without suitable shelter.

The best policymakers can do is get out of the way. That, however, requires them to take an active role. Government has been the primary author of the housing crisis, and its network of hurdles must be undone. Replace the California Environmental Quality Act with law that reasonably protects the environment but doesn’t create conditions that discourage home building. Forbid rent control laws in every corner of the state. Streamline and shorten the building permit process, and reduce, and waive when possible, permit fees. Lift local regulations that inhibit construction. Overhaul local zoning laws that block housing expansion.

In the best of all cases, policymakers would tear down every barrier they have erected. Eliminating even one of the hurdles mentioned above will do far more for the homeless than passing laws intended to create rights for them.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.