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Housing as a Right

Housing as a RightTufts' housing policy expert Rachel Bratt thinks that the United States should make housing a right to which all Americans are entitled.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.16.07] In Massachusetts and across the United States, affordable housing is a critical issue. In an op-ed recently published in The Boston Globe, Tufts housing policy expert Rachel Bratt called on the United States to officially recognize housing as a legal right, urging the government to put resources behind the rhetoric that every American deserves suitable housing.

"Without a guaranteed right to housing in the United States, thousands of households are struggling to find and keep housing they can afford," wrote Bratt, a professor and chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts.

Bratt hailed the recent endorsement by France's leaders for a legal right to housing, noting that the United States' expressed goal of "a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family" has not been coupled with progress to that end.

"A well-funded, multifaceted federal right to housing program would enable us to meet needs of residents of this state and across the country," wrote Bratt, who also recently co-edited a book entitled "A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda."

With a national public housing program lacking, Bratt wrote that governments at the federal, state and local level are trying to increase affordable housing by providing incentives to private sector developers.

Massachusetts is one such state. Under the state's Chapter 40B, developers can override local zoning laws if 20 to 25 percent of the housing they establish is deemed affordable. In this case, developers are only allowed to keep 20 percent of development profits, turning the rest over to the town for affordable housing projects.

"In recent years, 40B has been responsible for 30 percent of housing production in the state and 80 percent of housing for low- and moderate-income households in suburban communities," she explained. "In addition, the majority of 40B housing is good to look at, blends in well with its surroundings and is an important community asset."

But she also noted recent criticism of 40B, stemming from an inspector general's report of some 40B developers taking inappropriate profits from these housing developments.

Bratt says that the need for affordable housing is particularly keen in Massachusetts, where the high cost of living adversely affects numerous residents. She noted a survey by The Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts [PDF] where nearly 36 percent of respondents said that they, or their immediate family, had considered leaving the state due to the cost of housing.

This problem, Bratt said, presents an opportunity for Massachusetts to take a leadership role in making affordable housing a right and a reality.

"Massachusetts could be a leader in articulating the goal of a right to housing for all residents—and then delivering on this promise," she wrote.



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