Federalism is a messy political system. Every state has its own housing policy, as does every city and county. Plus the federal government runs federal housing policies, enforces federal regulations, and offers state and private housing providers various housing subsidies.
For students debating the March/April topic–Resolved: The United States ought to guarantee the right to housing–the political and economic background to this value resolution is complex.
In addition to the horizontal separation of power across the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, outlined in the U.S. Constitution, “federalism” refers to the vertical delegation of powers to federal, state, and local governments. Housing powers and policies were not among the powers originally delegated to the federal government, but later legislation created federal programs and departments like HUD (Housing and Urban Development).
The resolution says “The United States” ought to guarantee a “right to housing.” Online resources offering an overview and history housing rights include the National Institute for Housing, “The Case for a Right to Housing,” which discusses limited codified housing rights:
How have housing rights evolved in the United States?
Some specific, although quite limited, rights/ entitlements exist in the housing area. Local housing codes (varying enormously with respect to coverage and standards) provide something of a right to decent physical conditions. But enforcement is a problem and market realities limit the benefits these regulations offer.
An essay in The Federalist (a conservative website) argues housing inequality and lack of affordable housing should be blamed on restrictive local housing regulations. “Local Governments Are The Source Of Housing Inequality,” reports on research by Matthew Rognlie on the key role of housing costs in the inequality debate (referencing Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century):
Matthew Rognlie, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral student in economics, dismantles Piketty in his paper, “A note on Piketty and diminishing returns to capital.” Rognlie’s contention: “Recent trends in both capital wealth and income are driven almost entirely by housing…” Ronglie deploys sarcasm with effect, suggesting Piketty’s book would have been more accurately named, “Housing in the Twenty-First Century.”
Federalism provides housing researchers an avenue to compare the impact of policies across U.S. cities, counties, and states. Scott Beyer’s “Houston, Dallas & New York City: America’s Great 3-Way Housing Supply Race,” (Forbes, March 20, 2017) argues:
…a look at the numbers shows that…housing construction (or lack thereof) seems to be the driving factor behind whether or not large U.S. metros remain affordable.
Beyer draws from Census Bureau housing data to show that fast job and population growth need not raise housing costs. Cost are way up in Seattle, San Francisco, and around the Bay Area not because of the booming job markets but instead because homebuilding is blocked or delayed. The housing story from Texas cities contrasts sharply with California cities:
Houston and Dallas are the most notable examples of where such scarcity has not occurred–in fact, it’s almost been the opposite. Between 2010 and 2015, these two metros had the most net population growth, at 736,531 and 676,582, respectively. They are also perennially among the leaders in corporate and business relocation, job growth, and wage growth. But they have the 2nd and 3rd cheapest median home prices of the 11 metros, at $176,000 and $202,000, respectively (all housing price figures are from Zillow). Atlanta–with the nation’s 5th most permits since 2010–was just under Houston at $174,000.
Even more crucially, the prices in these two Texas giants have stabilized even amid this incredible population boom–especially in Houston. …
The Center for American Progress offered “Expanding Opportunities in America’s Urban Areas” in 2015, outlines five areas for reform, including “Ensure access to quality housing and transportation” and “Expand access to affordable housing.”
Finland’s success in ending homelessness started nonprofit assistance to provide housing and rental contract rather than complex housing and homeless assistance programs. “What can the UK learn from how Finland solved homelessness?,” (theguardian, March 22,2017)
This week’s report by EU housing organisation Feantsa has found every country in the EU in the midst of a crisis of homelessness and housing exclusion – with one exception: Finland.
So how has the country done it? By giving homeless people permanent housing as soon as they become homeless, rather than muddling along with various services that may eventually result in an offer of accommodation.
Kevin Williamson, in “A Misunderstood ‘Diversity’” (National Review, March 7, 2017) quotes David Brooks from a New York Times oped:
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many Republicans prefer a dying white America to a place like, say, Houston.
Houston has very light zoning regulations, and as a result it has affordable housing and a culture that welcomes immigrants. This has made it incredibly diverse, with 145 languages spoken in the city’s homes, and incredibly dynamic — the fastest-growing big city in America recently. …
The large immigrant population has paradoxically given the city a very strong, very patriotic and cohesive culture, built around being welcoming to newcomers and embracing the future.
Brooks (and Williamson) note the lack of zoning allows for some ugly and jarring development, with without the complexities, delays, and litigation surrounding zoning, housing costs are low in Houston, welcoming immigrants from around the world. Families pay far less for rent or mortgages, keeping the cost of living lower.
Plus, housing the homeless is a lot less complicated and expensive in Houston. Around the country zoning regulations are used to block or delay low-cost housing as well as both public and private temporary housing for homeless people.
In “Houston’s solution to the homeless crisis: Housing — and lots of it,” (Seattle Times, June 14, 2016):
Rather than open more shelters, they focused on getting people into housing. They told charitable organizations to sign on or lose out on funding.
They built a computer system to assess the homeless, prioritize them based on vulnerability, then connect them with programs. And they collected data, lots of data.
The results are surprising and have Seattle officials taking note: There are an estimated 1,050 homeless people without shelter in the area, according to a recent count, down about 75 percent from 4,418 in 2011.
So… the Houston narrative supports the claim that restrictive housing regulations in and around major cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area, cause much of housing affordability and homelessness problems.
Against this claim is “What Housing Shortage?” (The Urbanist, November 22, 2016). The article argues there is a natural delay from employment booms to housing construction responses:
Based on the expanded survey of supply and demand in Seattle, there is virtually no general shortage of housing. The data show supply responds to demand, just not immediately. The delay is likely due to the natural lag in construction and, beginning in 2010 the effects of a global financial crisis. Not only are Seattle builders now matching new population growth with new housing units, they are building at or near the construction industry’s capacity. Skilled construction workers are hard to come by. Seattle has more cranes than any American city yet they are still in short supply.
I live just 20 minutes south of Seattle in the town of Burien. When Seattle had half the jobs it does now, nearby communities, like Green Lake, just north of Seattle, were mostly single-family homes. Now Seattle is booming, with Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstroms, many new tech firms, plus Microsoft and Boeing nearby, these communities still have single-family housing. Zoning regulations has prevented density increases that would have allowed tens of thousands to live closer to Seattle. These neighborhoods mostly have older and often run-down homes, and employees of Seattle firms face very high rents or struggle with congested commutes from distant suburbs.
“Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density:
A new movement is saying yes to urban density in all its forms” (November, 2016), looks at efforts to return to natural urban diversity and density policies:
By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.
For more on the economics of housing, see “How the Housing Market Works” (The Freeman, August 22, 2016). The author compares markets for expensive, middle, and less expensive homes to similar markets for new and used cars:
However, a family may buy a relatively run-down home and then renovate it gradually over time as they can afford to do so. Still, the less-well-off in each category could afford decent housing – especially if regulations allow old A and B housing to be divided into smaller units – in the same way that it’s possible for them to afford a decent used car.
Housing markets are similar to others, but homes last long than hamburgers. Imagine a society where rich people bought large hamburgers, ate just a third, then passed them on to others. Sounds unfair (and un-hygienic) with hamburgers, but with housing, used homes can be kept up or even improved (remodeled). If local housing demands increase, and local regulations allow, used homes can be expanded and sub-divided.
[I’m renting a small room in a single-family home in Costa Mesa, California while attending a local debate tournament. The homeowners rent two rooms via Airbnb. For $50 a night I can afford to be here. At $80 or $90 a night, the costs at local hotels, I probably couldn’t. — Greg Rehmke]
For the March/April 2017 Lincoln-Douglas Debate: “Resolved: The United States ought to guarantee the right to housing,” students enter the value side of a century old debate on policies to provide access to safe and affordable housing.
Students searching for “a right to housing” quickly find supporting articles and books, such as: “The Case for a Right to Housing,” “A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda,” “Housing as a Human Right – National Low Income Housing Coalition,” “The Right to Adequate Housing” and many others.
The “right” has been written into several international standards documents and covenants and is widely supported by human rights groups.”
[Then quoting Alexander:] The human right to housing, embodied in several international treaties, declarations, and constitutions, establishes that every person has a right to adequate housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.
After quoting the 1949 Housing Act goal of “the implementation as soon as feasible of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family,” Everyday Debate asserts:
However, to date, the goal has never been met since there has been no serious effort by the federal government to provide the needed resources.
It’s not clear what a “serious effort” would look like, but the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars providing low-income housing and billions more have been spent by state and local governments for housing projects and subsidies. Affirmative debaters can advocate housing rights and for far more to be spent. Mixes with city, state, and federal housing programs are the efforts NGOs (non-government agencies) like Habitat for Humanity and many other local, state, and national nonprofits. More on NGOs and private housing below.
Students find claims that governments are not doing enough for [food safety, housing, education, child care, health care, etc.] and claims by conservatives and libertarians that government is doing too much. Across the political spectrum critics insist housing policy and programs need reform.
Public Choice economists make a separate case that government programs are often subverted or “captured” by corporations and other organized interest groups. The history of housing for the poor in the U.S. illustrates the many ways local, state, and federal policies and regulations protect established interests (Section 8 landlords, housing developers, current homeowners, and some NGOs and housing agencies).
To the question of federal spending on housing for the poor, according to the Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2017, Analytical Perspectives (quoted by Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute):
Federal housing subsidies… In 2016, the federal government spent $30 billion on rental subsidies for low-income households and almost $6 billion on public housing. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2016), Table 29-1.
USGovernmentSpending.com has page on total federal welfare spending, with housing expenditures in red in the chart at right, explaining:
There are three major welfare programs: relief (or income security), housing rent subsidies, and unemployment benefits.
The US Government Spending site also offers downloads of year-by-year federal housing expenditures, shown in table here for 2000 to
2017 (in billions of dollars). This is not a claim the federal government “already spends enough” or that current programs already address “a right to housing.” And obviously federal spending on housing subsidies is a lot less than spent in 2016 on national defense ($522 billion or $598 billion).
Students can dive into debates on local, state, and federal housing programs ranging from fraud and cronyism claims for Section 8 housing to stories of local misdeeds in diverting affordable housing funds.
Three housing stories some a range of housing issues: Philadelphia: “Affordable-housing dreams become Section 8 nightmares” (July 8, 2016), Texas/nationwide: “How Housing Policy Is Failing America’s Poor: Section 8 was intended to help people escape poverty, but instead it’s trapping them in it,” and Seattle: “Anatomy of a Swindle: How a Rogue Non-profit Captured the Emerald City,” (September 13, 2016).
The notes and links above on housing policy history and spending may seem more for policy debate than LD value debaters. Students can research positive and negative rights, and the views of natural law classical liberals that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are negative rights. By negative they mean right to life and liberty should not be interfered with by others.
Every claimed right creates an obligation on the part of others not to interfere to restrict rights. A right to swing your arms freely is limited by your neighbor’s nose, and your neighbor’s right to not be hit in the nose limits your freedom of movement.
A natural right to housing would prevent others from interfering with our right to housing, and as a negative right would protect building, rent, boarding, or share a house, apartment, or room. A negative housing right would protect from neighbors or governments unjustly interfering with housing choices (though also would restrict new housing where it imposed unjust burdens on neighbors).
A positive rights claim for housing, on the other hand, creates an obligation on the part of others or government to provide housing. Negative rights claims insist others leave us alone to build, rent, or share housing as we please, but a positive rights claim call upon others to provide housing. This would create a positive obligation on the part of others or government to build, rent, or provide housing.
For much more on positive and negative rights claims for value debaters see the online collection Liberalism, Values and Lincoln-Douglas Debate, (pdf: liberalvaluesld), from “The LD/Extemp Monthly” and later debate newsletters.
We know this because of remarkable success in other major cities. The best example is probably Houston (with Harris and Fort Bend counties), where a determined mayor, Annise Parker, built a public-private campaign that has rescued 77 percent of the region’s unsheltered homeless population, reducing their numbers from 5,194 in 2007 to 1,186 as of last January.
Houston’s unsheltered homeless population is down about 75 percent since 2011, and leaders there credit their new housing-first approach.
The Atlanta Housing Authority uses even stronger language to explain its work requirement for the nondisabled: “AHA continues to believe strongly in the value, dignity, and economic independence that work provides.” In some Atlanta developments, employment rates (or enrollment in education or training) run as high as 94 percent. The Abt report also found that 20 of 34 MTW [Moving To Work] authorities are moving to change rent rules that require tenants to pay 30 percent of their incomes in rent—implying a rent increase of 30 cents for every additional dollar earned and providing an unintended incentive to move to the underground or even criminal economy.
In 2005, Utah set out to fix a problem that’s often thought of as unfixable: chronic homelessness. The state had almost two thousand chronically homeless people. Most of them had mental-health or substance-abuse issues, or both. At the time, the standard approach was to try to make homeless people “housing ready”: first, you got people into shelters or halfway houses and put them into treatment; only when they made progress could they get a chance at permanent housing. Utah, though, embraced a different strategy, called Housing First: it started by just giving the homeless homes.
The NSDA Lincoln-Douglas Debate topic for 2017 Jan/Feb is:
Resolved: Public colleges and universities in the United States ought not restrict any constitutionally protected speech.
“Public” (government-owned) college and universities receive state and federal funding (most private universities also receive significant state and federal support via student loans, research grants, and tax-deductions on contributions).
The Constitution’s First Amendment bans any laws restricting freedom of speech:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Campus speech is in the news with the recent riot at the University of California at Berkeley. How should universities respond to student, faculty, or guest speakers whose talks are deemed by some as intolerant, insulting, or provoking outrage? Well, Congress is barred from making laws “abridging the freedom of speech.”
Did Congress or the State of California pass laws restricting freedom of speech at UC-Berkeley?
FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is critical of campus speech codes and litigates against them. FIRE’s “What Are Speech Codes?” page explains:
FIRE defines a “speech code” as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Any policy—such as a harassment policy, a protest and demonstration policy, or an IT acceptable use policy—can be a speech code if it prohibits protected speech or expression.
FIRE’s statement on the Berkeley riots (February 2, 2017):
FIRE condemns both violence and attempts to silence protected expression in the strongest terms. We also urge that decisions affecting long-term policy be made only after all the facts are gathered and with appropriate opportunity for reasoned discussion.
Last week, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks wrote a letter to the university community rightfully refusing demands that the university cancel the event ahead of time. Dirks pointed out his disagreement with Yiannopoulos’ views, but insisted that “[c]onsistent with the dictates of the First Amendment as uniformly and decisively interpreted by the courts, the university cannot censor or prohibit events, or charge differential fees.” He also warned those threatening disruptive protests in an effort to shut down the speech that the university “will not stand idly by while laws or university policies are violated, no matter who the perpetrators are.”
But though the Berkeley administrators and campus police tried, they were overwhelmed by protesters. Then President Trump joined the controversy. The FIRE post continues:
This morning, President Trump weighed in with a tweet reading, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” It is true that, under current law, public universities that enforce blatantly unconstitutional speech codes and private universities that violate their own promises of free speech do not face the same potential loss of federal funding for censoring campus speech that they do for violating other federal civil rights laws and regulations. However, FIRE has so far seen no evidence that Berkeley as an institution made any effort to silence Yiannopoulos.
Shikha Sood Dalmia, a Senior Analyst at the Reason Foundation, posted on Facebook:
Any honest condemnation of the violence at U-C Berkeley has to begin by condemning also the extremists who invited Milo [Yiannopoulos] to speak in the first place. What IS the point of having this loathsome creature on campus except to bait and incite and flex your muscles in Trump’s America?
How do college administers decide who should be allowed to teach at or give guest talks on college campuses? Lots of presentations can sound controversial. That’s one way to get students’ attention.
I give talks on debate topics on college conferences organized by the Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL). UIL had a topic on campus speech codes a couple years ago, and in a session I asked students if anything said would be okay: “How about: A woman’s place is in the House…” Of course there was immediate commotion and noisy responses from students who wouldn’t be able to hear me continue “… of Representatives.”
Shouting down a speaker prevents audiences from hearing enough to make up their own minds. But audiences, especially students, can be drawn into worlds of violent and hateful ideas. Teachers and administers try to provide some guidance in high school and college classrooms and campuses. But what happens when teachers or college professors are accused of promoting violence…
An article on CNS News (Conservative News Service), titled “College Instructors Tell Students: America’s Founding Fathers Ran ‘A Terrorist Organization’” complains:
Instructors at the taxpayer-funded University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) reportedly told students enrolled in their team-taught humanities class that America’s founding fathers ran “a terrorist organization” and used “violence and terror to influence opinions” in their fight for independence from Great Britain.
The CNS News post says: Benson and Lee compared the colonists’ revolt to modern-day terrorists. That may sound a controversial or hateful way to look at America’s Founding, but revolutionaries do use violence and the threat of violence to achieve their aims. They claim that the ends justify the means.
Though Hollywood is not our best source for history, Mel Gibson’s 200o movie The Patriot could have been titled The Terrorist. UK’s The Guardian was not amused, and explains in “The Patriot: more flag-waving rot with Mel Gibson” (July 23, 2009).
A more scholarly review is The Patriot: Movie Review, in the Journal of American History (Vol. 83, No. 3) which notes:
The most serious deficiency of The Patriot is its almost complete omission of the Loyalists. A significant segment of the population of the Carolinas and Georgia remained loyal, and much of the fighting there was a civil war between Tories and Whigs. Though Loyalist provincial and militia units constituted one-half of the British army in the South, the film portrays only one Loyalist soldier, Captain Wilkins (Adam Baldwin) in Colonel Tavington’s (Jason Isaacs) dragoons. …
The film gives the impression that Tavington’s regiment is British and that Captain Wilkins is the only Loyalist in its ranks. No other Loyalist soldiers appear in The Patriot.
Students may wonder why this post has drifted from constitutionally protected campus speech to patriots as terrorists in the Revolutionary War. My point is just that there is often more to controversial claims and stories, and suppressing the presentation and discussion of those stories limits our knowledge of the world.
College guest speakers or faculty with a talk on “America’s Founders as Terrorists” might get banned, fired, or shouted down before they can make their case. Students can disagree after hearing controversial claims about the past or present, but they are left living in narrow worlds without occasionally exposed to disruptive and sometimes illuminating ideas and claims.
Speech and debate competition is valuable for students to widen those worlds as they develop skills to research and articulate views as well as consider, evaluate, and agree or disagree with the views of others.
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Aristotle
The Nov/Dec, 2016 Lincoln-Douglas Debate topic is controversial: “Resolved: The United States ought to limit qualified immunity for police officers.”
Lincoln-Douglas debaters should read widely on the police/citizen clashes over the last year, and consider values including, of course, justice and safety.
Police working in high-crime neighborhoods are under pressure and deal with many difficult situations. But life can be difficult and tense too for the people who live day-to-day in high-crime neighborhoods.
But just as most property crime and violence in high-crime neighborhoods is caused by a small minority of young men, most incidents of police misbehavior is caused by a small minority. (Link to 2015 Brooking Institution post.)
Shikha Dalmia in “How police unions actually hurt police officers,” (The Week, July 18, 2016) argues these “bad apples” are protected by union procedures designed for other purposes. Part of the challenge, Dalmia writes is lack of reported data on police/citizen incidents:
The Crime Control Act of 1994 asked the FBI to annually compile and publish data about the use of police force in all instances so that the country could keep track of trends of police violence, identify problematic precincts, or catch enforcement bias. But union representatives of law enforcement agencies successfully lobbied the feds to make reporting optional. So most departments now simply plead poverty and refuse to comply.
This is a huge problem. In the absence of good data, it is impossible to say definitively if racism is driving police abuse in black communities. And because it is impossible to identify the size and scope of this problem, it is impossible to craft and enact a solution to it — a solution, mind you, that would not only better serve and protect minority communities, but also keep police safer, too.
This is but one example of police unions going to eye-popping lengths to protect rogue cops at the expense of citizens (and the many decent cops who are tainted as well). Consider the binding arbitration that has become a standard feature of virtually all police contracts, which are often negotiated in secrecy. Binding arbitration allows cops to appeal any disciplinary action taken by their superiors to outside arbitrators such as retired judges. In theory, these folks are supposed to be neutral third parties. In reality, they are usually in the pockets of unions and dismiss or roll back a striking two-thirds of all actions, even against cops with a history of abuse and excessive violence. The upshot is that police chiefs are powerless to clean house, even as community complaints pile up. This is exactly what was happening in Baltimore when Freddie Gray died during his ride to the police station last year.
Students are encouraged to read the article for more on Dalmia’s argument on the role police unions play in protecting the minority of police involved in violent or aggressive incidents with the public that appear unjustified after review.
For more, see Conor Friedersdorf, “How Police Unions and Arbitrators Keep Abusive Cops on the Street,” in The Atlantic (December 2, 2014)
Police institutional procedures like binding arbitration clauses and procedures in union contracts should allow fair evaluation of complaints about violent incidents between police officers and the public.
And more directly on the LD topic, Evan Bernick, Assistant Director of the Center for Judicial Engagement at the Institute for Justice, has this May 6, 2015 article in The Freeman, “To Hold Police Accountable, Don’t Give Them Immunity,” drawn from his April, 2015 remarks to the US Commission on Civil Rights.
Critics of these reform proposal and the focus on police misconduct point to dramatically increasing violence in many inner-cities, and police pull back. (Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities (New York Times, August 31, 2015.) Murders have increased through 2016 in Chicago and other cities.
Economist Thomas Sowell draws from The War on Cops for his National Review article: “The Race War No One Can Win” (National Review, July 13, 2016)
Reason magazine’s critical review of the book: “There Is No War on Cops: A new book from a prominent right-wing commentator fails to make the case.”
And New York Times review article of “The Problem With Modern Policing, as Seen From the Right and From the Left” (June 27, 2016).