Campbell: Think of ‘the humanity of families.’ CT needs to treat housing as human right

Photo of Susan Campbell
An Amtrak Acela train passes near Crescent Crossing, a new affordable housing development in Bridgeport.

An Amtrak Acela train passes near Crescent Crossing, a new affordable housing development in Bridgeport.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Imagine if we treated housing as a human right for every Connecticut resident.

A bill sponsored by State Sen. Saud Anwar (D-South Windsor) is making its way through the Connecticut General Assembly.

The bill, which earlier this month was reported favorably out of the legislative housing committee, establishes “a right for every resident in this state to obtain adequate housing.”

California legislators discussed a similar resolution last year, but the effort died in committee in November. If this Connecticut bill passes, it will be the first in the country.

The bill requires state agencies to focus on families living in poverty, and people who are homeless or on the verge of being homeless.

The bill also seeks to remove barriers to permanent housing, such as past evictions or incarcerations, or disabilities, or other special circumstances, and is a continuation of the state’s incredible efforts to end homelessness — making any incidence brief and rare  —  among veterans, families, and others.

The bill’s reach is broad, and aspirational, says Sarah Fox, the director of policy at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. It may not pass, but if there was ever a time and place for the state to draw a line in the sand, it’s now, and it’s housing.

Connecticut has been in a housing crisis for decades, with some of the most expensive markets in the nation. Every year, the D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition publishes “Out of Reach,” a study of renters’ salaries and the cost of renting around the country.

Since the late 1960s, the rule of thumb is that families should spend no more than 30% of their household income on housing costs, be that rent or mortgage. In Connecticut, according to the Harford-based Partnership for Strong Communities, some 120,000 households pay more than half their income on rent and utilities. That’s nearly a tenth of the state’s households.

What does that mean? To keep a roof over their heads, struggling families sacrifice other essentials - food, and medicine if they need it. The low-income housing coalition also measures the hourly wage that would allow a worker to afford an apartment around the country.

For the coalition’s 2020 report, a worker who works for minimum wage in Connecticut would need to be on the job for 78 hours every week to afford, the study said, a “modest one-bedroom home.”

The pandemic has only made things worse. Earlier this month, the coalition released another report that said that nationally, 21% of renters were behind on their payments in January. For renters who earn less than $25,000 a year, 30% are behind. Nearly half expect to be evicted.

A February report from Urban Institute said that Connecticut - which is both aging and becoming more racially and ethnically diverse - lacks sufficient affordable housing for low-income families. That means that the people we’ve called “essential” during the pandemic - cashiers, people who work in childcare centers - face a housing crisis of unimaginable proportions.

According to CCEH, some 45,000 renters in the state are on the brink of eviction, and about 110,000 are behind on their rent payments. As with so much of the pandemic, the weight has fallen especially hard on communities of color.

We have reached the point where all the moratoriums in the world -- and all the extensions of those moratoriums -- won’t help. It’s time for some creative solutions to make sure families have homes in Connecticut.

Fox, whose mother was homeless before she found permanent supportive housing, knows the impact when a family has an address and a door that locks.

“We would do much better if we actually thought about the humanity of families,” she said. “We could do so much for so many with meager resources.”

Housing as a human right is neither radical nor new. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt mentioned it in his 1944 State of the Union address. Four years later, the U.S. signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which agreed that housing (along with food and clothing) is a basic right. A recent poll from National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says that 75% of Americans believe that housing is a human right, and two-thirds of Americans believe the government should be involved in making that happen.

Yet historically, the price of rents and mortgages have been decided by the market.

It’s a simple idea, and as for opposition, Fox is quick to say the bill does not provide residents with free housing on demand. The bill also leaves to the state decisions about reallocation of funds that will provide housing for as many people as possible.

“It’s about being able to meet people’s needs,” Fox said. “So often, it’s our laws that are precluding us from having the ability to house people. We as a state have to find a way to make sure we are meeting the needs of people who are most vulnerable. We also know that housing is a prescription for wellness. That’s one thing the pandemic has shown us.”