Housing is a ‘Basic Human Right’

by Ronald Robertson

(The following article is reprinted from Mosaics, News of UB School of Social Work, Fall 2013.)



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That access to shelter is a basic human right seems to be self-evident. But the reality is that this basic human right isn’t always easy to obtain.




“Everyone has a right to safe, decent, affordable housing and should be able to choose where they live without encountering barriers based on race, gender, income, disability status, age and other factors,” insists assistant professor Kelly Patterson, an urban planning expert on fair and affordable housing policy.




Her research looks at patterns of where Buffalo residents choose to live when they receive help through Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program.


“The primary goal of the HCV program is to give low-income families a reduction in housing costs so that they can afford decent living accommodations in neighborhoods of their choice.”


The question that drives Patterson’s research is whether it is an effective program “at moving people, particularly blacks and other minorities, out of impoverished, segregated neighborhoods that are characterized by declining housing values, high vacancy rates, joblessness, high crime rates and weakened social institutions.”


That question matters, she says, because “when individuals are stuck in these neighborhoods, their opportunities for social and economic mobility are severely limited.”


Patterson points to Buffalo as a unique community in which to seek answers. While most research is based in urban areas with tight housing markets that limit the availability of affordable housing, “Buffalo and the surrounding metro area have a slack housing market where there is an inventory of affordable housing,” she notes.



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Patterson points to Buffalo as a unique community in which to seek answers. While most research is based in urban areas with tight housing markets that limit the availability of affordable housing, “Buffalo and the surrounding metro area have a slack housing market where there is an inventory of affordable housing,” she notes.




The HCV program aims to level the playing field by paying part of the rent directly to the landlord. The renter pays part of the rent—no more than 30 percent of his or her income—and HUD pays the rest.


Rather than being restricted to certain apartment complexes, tenants can choose where they want to live. This, Patterson says, gives them greater mobility and the opportunity to move out of impoverished neighborhoods and into better ones.


Patterson puzzles over why “voucher holders are still locating in patterns that mirror the existing and historical patterns of racial segregation.” Her research is finding that when people do move out of inner-city neighborhoods, “they tend to recluster in areas that are trending downward on quality of life indicators,” which means they often move from bad neighborhoods to neighborhoods that are becoming that way.


“One of the primary problems is that rents have risen faster than incomes for a growing segment of the workforce.” This is mostly because incomes rise faster for people in high-skill, high-wage jobs than for low and moderate-wage workers. This means the average renter cannot afford to pay full market price for a typical apartment.


The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Buffalo is $736 a month. Without paying more than 30 percent of its income for housing, a household would have to earn $2,453 a month or $29,440 a year—but with an average hourly wage of $10.19, the average renter can only afford $539. “Vouchers directly mitigate this problem and make it possible for this population to afford decent housing without spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities,” Patterson explains.


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Patterson may have a doctorate in Urban Studies, but she sounds and acts like a social worker. She serves on the board of directors of Belmont Housing Resources of WNY, which helps people rent or buy affordable homes. “Belmont administers rental assistance programs and offers a variety of housing-related programs and services that promote home ownership,” she says.


Belmont also fixes up existing housing stock and manages several affordable housing projects in the area. “What I am most proud of at Belmont is the fact that we provide direct services to more than 13,000 low-income households annually and generate rental assistance payments to property owners in excess of $24 million per year.”


Patterson says the HCV program is vital because the country’s number one housing problem is the lack of affordable housing for extremely low income households, particularly families with children.


“Finding a decent, affordable home is a challenge for all renters,” she said, “but the poorest households are the most likely to be locked out of the market entirely.”


Robertson, Ronald. (2013, Fall). Housing is a ‘Basic Human Right’. Mosaics. Retrieved from http://issuu.com/mosaics-ubssw/docs/mosaics_fall_2013_final pp. 10-11.


SocialWorkSynergy: I define basic human rights to include but not limited to

  • access to food, shelter, education;
  • right to self-determination and identity;
  • work with dignity that includes a sustainable/living wage;
  • the rights to assemble, speak, publish (freedom of the press), worship (or to be an atheist), and to question authority;
  • participation in civil affairs/governance; and
  • freedom from state-sponsored or interpersonal violence.

Do you view housing as a basic human right?  Why or why not?  Add your comments!



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Kelly Patterson





Recent publications:

Patterson, Kelly L., Nochajski, Tom and Laiyun Wu. 2014. “Neighborhood Outcomes of Formally Homeless Veterans Participating in the HUD-VASH Program.” Journal of Community Practice, 22:3.


Silverman, Robert Mark, Lewis, Jade and Patterson, Kelly L. 2014. “William Worthy’s Concept of ‘Institutional Rape’ Revisited: Anchor Institutions and Residential Displacement in Buffalo, NY.” Humanity & Society, Online First.


Silverman, Robert Mark, Patterson, Kelly L. and Lewis, Jade. 2013. “Chasing a Paper Tiger: Evaluating Buffalo’s Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice.” Current Urban Studies, 1(3): 28-35.


Silverman, Robert Mark, Li Yin and Kelly L. Patterson. 2013. “Dawn of the Dead City: An Exploratory Analysis of Vacant Addresses in Buffalo, NY 2008-2010.” Journal of Urban Affairs, 35(2):131-152.


  • I had the pleasure of working with Belmont for my field placement during the foundation year of my MSW program. It gave me a great opportunity to learn about housing and the many ways it affects a person’s quality of life. I came away from this experience with a very firm belief that housing is a basic human right. For me, it is basic because it is fundamental, a starting point which provides a foundation for the realization of other rights.

    Housing is foundational to many other essential human needs. Most directly, housing provides physical shelter from the elements. In addition, it is nearly impossible to get a job unless you have a permanent address. These two factors alone can lead to the accumulation of disadvantages.

    However, and perhaps more importantly, when housing becomes a home, it can provide an emotional shelter, a sense of safety, and belonging. I could not count the number of people participating in the HCV program who expressed a desire for a place where they could feel at home. I saw the difference that having a home had, versus having only housing.

    So, while housing itself is a moral necessity – we do serious harm to others if we deprive them of it – it is only a beginning. Housing is the foundation upon which people build a home. And as social workers, I believe we need to strive to help those we serve to come to physical, mental, emotional, and social places where they are capable of building homes.

    • You offer a good account of why housing is a human right, from the perspective of establishing that physically “safe place” from which an individual can have a strong base from which to go forth into the world. Thanks for your comment, Steve.

  • The fact that this human right has to be discussed and have specific programs to address in the United States seems like an interesting topic in itself. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 25, states: “(1)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, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
    The interesting part about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that some countries choose to ratify only parts of the Declaration. In the United States, obviously we have not fully integrated this idea into our cultural perceptions of basic human rights. While programs to help address housing exist and show that some part of our population believes in this right, its interesting that this is not a standard across the United States. Many countries do consider this a human right, and its interesting that some of the other cultural values held in the United States, like capitalism, compete directly with the idea that everyone should be entitled to a certain amount of basic necessities like housing.
    United Nations (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

    • Taylor Humphries

      So in life (real life),where all humans are created equal. No humans have a right to absolutely anything beyond being alive. We are born which gives proof to our right to have life. What this article and your comment are speaking on is people’s lives that they live while having life on Earth. The rights your speak of are standards, and personal beliefs. You say human rights I would saying what you or I believe should be so. Because not one word of this entire page could sway the fact that no human on Earth has ever been born with a right beyond temporarily living itself. It is the lives people are born into that gives people what they have. Kings and queens, rich and poor, easy and hard, these are all tangible characteristics that are created prior to or in our lives. You can’t be born and given life that comes with a gaurenteed house. You can’t come into an existence and that existence is indefenitly ordained with a right to a climate controlled shelter that keeps you safe from all natural and unnatural occurances. The United nations, or even United States of American can put into law or dictate that life has rights to whatever they want, it’s not a divinely protected declaration that creates absolution. All that being said would to me logically conclude that a right isn’t something your given indefinitely, it’s not something someone else can give you, it’s not something that a government can maintain perfectly to each individual. A Right is something you can give yourself, after which requires working towards and maintaining for the duration of your life, it’s only something you can earn for yourself, and no person could ever have the time to maintain another person’s life with the rights they earned. If you don’t have you something, you find out whatever way possible to acquire it, you do all you can to succeed in doing so, and then you do whatever necessary to keep it. American culture isn’t simply the right to have, it is the right to acquire whatever it is you decide you want in life. It only protects a persons possibilities. All of your opinions also forget one of the trueing logics there is ” you can teach a person anything and they will only know as much as you taught them, but if you let a person learn for themselves then they can teach themselves all there is to know”.

  • Great article! I agree that housing is a human right, which the Declaration of Human Rights article 25 states:
    Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control…(“Human Rights,” 1948; Reichert, 2011, p. 68).
    Reading this article also reminds me of article 13:
    Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state…(“Human Rights,” 1948; Reichert, 2011, p. 60).
    Patterson is addressing these rights in a unique way to attempt to aid peoples in obtaining adequate housing that is affordable in a location of their choice. It is sad, as another reader points out, that capitalism and our current economy places a financial and barrier for many people in attaining these basic human rights. If our economy were as trauma informed and practiced as organizations, such as Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, perhaps some of the barriers to the financial attainment of sustainable housing will decrease (Harris & Fallot, 2001). It is great to see bottom up advocacy and change occurring in our local area.
    If the current wages for workers does not allow for sustainable housing, then the human rights of individuals is in peril. What is quoted for the average rent is well above what many people make, especially those with minimum wage trying to also raise a family. It is also important to point out that a larger family may need a larger apartment than a two bedroom, which will increase the rent cost. I am glad to read about efforts of peoples such as Patterson and her organization; I am hopeful similar actions spread throughout our society on all levels.

    Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (2001). Using Trauma Theory to Design Service Systems. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
    Reichert, E. (2011). Social Work and Human Rights: A foundation for policy and practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

  • Danielle Pinkerton

    This article is great in that it sheds light on a program that is designed to lift families out of poverty and subsequently diversify neighborhoods which further removes them from the cycle of poverty. I also agree that housing is a human right. Previous comments have cited Articles 13 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) as identifying the concept of choice of housing as a human right, and housing as a factor of an adequate standard of living in promotion of health and safety respectively. This article identifies trends i which previous programs isolated people in poverty in specific neighborhoods that lacked the resources necessary to pursue a standard of living that would maintain appropriate levels of health and safety for its residents.This program is interesting in that the voucher is income based, and thusly accommodates the issue of a lack of a living wage for many who are referred to by social workers as “the working poor”. In doing so, it helps to diversify neighborhoods, and move people into areas that do have the needed resources that would further improve their quality of life. One can observe and study the trends of the people served by this program to validate the increase in the clients’ overall standard of living by providing adequate housing in diversified neighborhoods that do provide resources that were unavailable in their previous housing. It may create a foundation for an evidence based practice of recognizing that adequate housing is necessary to promote a higher standard of living. I would be interested to see the results of a longitudinal study on the impact this program has on the people it serves in terms of quality of life.

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