How HUD Protects Rights to Housing

The United States has had a long and complicated history when it comes to the right to housing. In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the right of “a decent home” for every American family, regardless of “station, race, or creed” in what has come to be known as the Second Bill of Rights. By acknowledging that millions of Americans were not able to realize their right to housing, FDR helped to spark a national and international dialogue and future legislation.

In 1948, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that, among other things, “everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living … including the right to housing.” Soon after, The Housing Act of 1949 established the national goal of “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”

Since then, many laws and regulations have passed that have been specifically designed to help every American citizen realize his or her right to housing. Perhaps most notably is the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which, as amended, ”prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and disability.”

Community planners and services providers who are committed to ending homelessness can use the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) statutes and regulations to help families and individuals sustain and access housing. These are important tools to help prevent and end homelessness in every community.

HUD in Action 

As the nation’s lead housing agency, HUD has the responsibility of making the Federal goal of decent housing and suitable living environments for all a reality. This is not to say it is the government’s job to build a house for each of its citizens, rather, it is the government’s responsibility to create the best conditions through policy, legislation, and enforcement so that all residents are able to enjoy their full rights. 

As described in the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s 2011 report “Simply Unacceptable: Homelessness and the Human Right to Housing in the United States,” such efforts can include “devoting resources to public housing and vouchers, creating incentives for private development of affordable housing such as inclusionary zoning or the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, through market regulation such as rent control, through legal due process protections from eviction or foreclosure, ensuring habitable conditions through housing codes and inspections, or by other means.”

Other means include enforcing the Fair Housing Laws and Presidential Executive Orders that ensure housing right protections for millions of Americans. This includes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which both prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in reference to housing.

Through the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), HUD “administers and enforces federal laws and establishes policies that make sure all Americans have equal access to the housing of their choice.” Some of the methods the FHEO uses, which may be of significant use to State or local practitioners, are the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) and the Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP), both designed to assist those who believe they have been victims of housing discrimination by investigating claims. Through these programs, HUD provides funding incentives to government and non-government entities to help enforce fair housing laws, thereby increasing access to housing for protected classes of Americans. 

HUD also maintains the Fair Housing Accessibility FIRST initiative, providing information, resources, support, and technical assistance in the planning of housing that complies with fair housing laws. This initiative is a useful resource for housing developers to help ensure low-barrier access to housing is implemented from the very early stages of planning.

Finally, HUD requires local governments and States that receive funding for housing to participate in Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), thereby increasing access to housing for Americans. A new rule proposed this year would boost State and local governments’ assessment of fair housing by improving access to tools necessary for data collection. 

Above and Beyond 

As demonstrated above, HUD works to make sure existing laws and policies are enforced to ensure equal access to housing. In order to provide even greater access to fair housing, HUD has taken steps to improve the experience of Americans seeking housing who are not covered by Federal laws.

For many Americans seeking housing, especially those who are homeless and/or dependent on housing vouchers and alternative sources of income such as social security or disability, discrimination is a major challenge to accessing housing.

Currently 12 states and the District of Columbia have source of income anti-discrimination laws. In 2010, HUD began requiring general funding grant applicants to comply with State and local source of income anti-discrimination laws. As Secretary Donovan stated in a HUD press release, “A family’s source of income should never be used as a basis to discriminate against them.”

HUD has also expressed its commitment to ensure equal access within HUD-funded programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people. In 2012, HUD issued a new regulation called the Equal Access to Housing in HUD Programs Regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity, commonly called the LGBT Equal Access Rule. By instituting this rule, HUD is serving as a model for equal access to housing for all communities.

Furthermore, HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research recently published results from the first large scale study on housing discrimination toward same-sex couples, showing that discrimination toward gays and lesbians is occurring and is a significant barrier to housing. Currently, only sixteen States and the District of Columbia protect individuals from housing discrimination based on gender expression, and 21 States and D.C. protect individuals from housing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

By committing to help further the housing rights of LGBT Americans, HUD is ensuring that many LGBT people experiencing homelessness (for example, the 29% of San Francisco’s 2013 homeless population who identify as LGBT) can end their homelessness without being discriminated against.

The international human right to housing means more than protecting people from discrimination; it means ensuring that all Americans have appropriate levels of housing assistance. 

Thus, the next frontier for the right to housing movement could be protecting the right to affordable housing. Fair housing laws have achieved the goal of providing the right to nondiscrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, and creed. Moving forward, a comprehensive affordable housing policy would continue progress on protecting the right to affordability and quality. Achievement of that goal would dramatically and significantly contribute to an end to homelessness for all in America.