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Housing Policy Debate
ISSN: 1051-1482 (Print) 2152-050X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rhpd20
Comment on Chester Hartman’s “The case for a
right to housing”: Housing is a right? Wrong!
Peter D. Salins
To cite this article: Peter D. Salins (1998) Comment on Chester Hartman’s “The case for
a right to housing”: Housing is a right? Wrong!, Housing Policy Debate, 9:2, 259-266, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10511482.1998.9521294
Published online: 31 Mar 2010.
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Housing Policy Debate • Volume 9, Issue 2 259
q Fannie Mae Foundation 1998. All Rights Reserved.
Comment on Chester Hartman’s ‘‘The Case for a
Right to Housing’’: Housing Is a Right? Wrong!
Peter D. Salins
State University of New York
Although currently neither politically nor fiscally feasible, the notion that access to
inexpensive, presumably high-quality housing should be a government-guaranteed
universal right would be a terrible idea even if it were popular and affordable. The
proposition fails on three counts. It isn’t necessary. It doesn’t make economic sense.
And, most compelling, were such a policy to be implemented, its putative beneficiaries
would not thank us.
Even if we should not promulgate ‘‘a right to decent, affordable housing,’’ we want
to assure that all Americans have access to decent, affordable housing. Happily, we
can count on the private housing market (coupled with rising prosperity) to serve
95 percent of the country’s households. Serving the remaining 5 percent requires
concerted measures to scale back onerous housing regulations that prevent the private
housing sector from meeting the needs of lower-income and untypical households.
Keywords: Housing; Affordability; Markets; Policy
For the better part of the twentieth century, liberal housing advocates
in the United States (and their counterparts in other industrial
countries) have asserted that inexpensive, high-quality housing
is a birthright of all citizens in an affluent, modern, and
enlightened society and that it is government’s obligation to fund
and implement that birthright. Chester Hartman’s article is only
the latest in an exceedingly long catalog of such assertions. But although
the arguments Hartman makes in recapitulating the case
for a housing guarantee hardly differ from those of earlier passionate
housing reformers such as Catherine Bauer Wurster, the contemporary
context in which he makes them is radically different.
Public confidence in the ability of government programs to solve intractable
societal problems is at an all-time low. Taxpayers are increasingly
disinclined to support existing costly entitlements (other
than those intended for the middle class), let alone add new ones.
And the fruits of six decades of government subsidization and sponsorship
of low-cost housing—efforts that never made housing an
entitlement but that were nonetheless grounded in the premises of
260 Peter D. Salins
housing advocates—have been largely disappointing. Against this
backdrop it is easy to dismiss Hartman’s proposition as not only
anachronistic but laughably quixotic (a term that even he applies to
the effort). Nevertheless, because Hartman’s clarion call may still
ring true for a sizable minority of well-meaning people—especially
among the ranks of planners and social welfare professionals, not to
mention judges—it deserves a thoughtful response.
Although currently neither politically nor fiscally feasible, the notion
that access to inexpensive, presumably high-quality housing
should be a government-guaranteed universal right is a terrible
idea even if it were popular and affordable. The proposition fails on
three counts. It isn’t necessary. It doesn’t make economic sense.
And, most compelling, were such a policy to be implemented, its putative
beneficiaries would not thank us.
Why a government-guaranteed housing entitlement is
Housing conditions in the United States have improved steadily
and inexorably during this century, especially in the five decades
since the end of World War II, the period in which nearly 80 percent
of all currently occupied dwellings were built. It is not hyperbolic to
assert that today American housing conditions are not only better
than they ever were but that they are the best in the world. Virtually
all of this improvement has resulted from a combination of rising
household incomes and the dynamics of the private housing
market. The historical indicators of housing inadequacy were overcrowding
(which Hartman still alludes to), dilapidation, and lack of
private plumbing facilities. By none of these measures do we have a
serious housing problem today. In 1940 more than 20 percent of all
dwellings were overcrowded (occupied by more than one person per
room). Fewer than 5 percent are today. In 1940, 18 percent of all
dwellings were severely deteriorated physically. Only 2 percent are
today. In 1940 over 45 percent of all dwellings lacked a complete set
of plumbing fixtures in bathrooms and kitchens. By 1990 only 1
percent suffered from such deficiencies (U.S. Bureau of the Census
Few Americans even judge their housing conditions by these antiquated
standards any more. Most Americans are no longer satisfied
with merely adequate housing. They want luxurious housing, and
they are getting it. Even as American households get smaller, their
homes are getting larger. In 1960 the typical dwelling was 1,200
square feet and occupied by 3.1 persons. By 1990 the typical home
had grown to more than 1,700 square feet, occupied by only 2.4 persons.
Practically all homes have refrigerators (most self-defrosting).
Comment on Chester Hartman’s ‘‘The Case for a Right to Housing’’ 261
Eighty percent have washing machines and 70 percent have clothes
dryers. More than half have dishwashers. At one time the lack of
central heating was a housing concern. Today, central heating is
universal (and mandated by local housing codes), and air conditioning,
once a true luxury enjoyed only by the affluent, is now nearly
as ubiquitous. More than 44 percent of all dwellings have central
air conditioning. Most of the rest that need cooling have room air
conditioners (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1993). Not only dwelling
interiors have improved. Increasingly, homes sit on large, welllandscaped
properties, often with swimming pools and other site
amenities. Even apartment and town house complexes are often set
among luxurious grounds and include extensive communal recreation
facilities. Hartman is concerned about housing tenure. But the
most secure housing tenure is homeownership, and—at the rate of
65.4 percent—more Americans than ever before own their homes
(Joint Center for Housing Studies 1997).
Hartman and other reformers would likely counter that not only
have many Americans not benefited from the general trend, but
such improvement in housing conditions as has occurred is attributable
to a partial implementation of the housing reformers’ agenda.
But if any government programs have contributed to the massive
upgrading of American housing conditions in the last half century,
they have not been the ones that are the prototypes for Hartman’s
housing entitlement. Arguably, the Federal Housing Administration’s
and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ trailblazing in making
homeownership more available and affordable in the decades
immediately after World War II may have played an important role
in fueling postwar suburban housing development, the major arena
in which Americans found better housing. The income tax deductibility
of homeowners’ interest and property taxes—a subsidy frequently
disparaged by Hartman and other housing reformers—may
be a factor in sustaining the high level of homeownership. And
government-initiated development of secondary mortgage markets
(i.e., Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) have greatly expanded the
volume of housing finance.
But whatever the contribution that these nonmeans-tested housing
programs may have made, the traditional government housing programs
aimed at low-income households—the ones that Hartman
would expand in fulfilling his housing entitlement—have at best
contributed only a small increment of housing improvement, while
trapping their poor and near-poor clients in an isolated and inferior
housing submarket. The United States today has more than 1.3
million publicly owned or managed housing units, and another 3.5
million receiving a continuing stream of housing subsidies (U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development 1997). That represents
less than 5 percent of all dwellings. More to the point, much
262 Peter D. Salins
of this stock is perceived to be undesirable; much of it is expensive
to build and not especially affordable (even with subsidies). And
had these programs not been implemented, their beneficiaries
might have been better served in the primary housing market.
Why a government-guaranteed housing entitlement does
not make economic sense
When Hartman and other housing advocates argue that a massive
government investment in housing subsidies is money well spent,
and a bargain compared to defense outlays, they presuppose that
the primary obstacle to public support for such a policy is its prohibitive
cost. However, large-scale housing subsidies are a bad idea
not merely because they are expensive but because they distort the
economic dynamics of the housing market, with respect to both supply
and demand. The superior quality of America’s housing—as well
as its extraordinary variety—is no happy accident. It is a tribute to
the successful functioning of a relatively unfettered private housing
market that has been able to (1) efficiently and continuously produce
a high volume of housing responsive to a diverse set of consumer
needs and preferences, and (2) allocate that housing to a
mass market of consumers both rationally and equitably.
If government involvement in the provision of housing were significantly
extended, as Hartman proposes, the housing market would
become increasingly impaired, mainly to the detriment of housing
consumers—including the poor. Even existing housing programs,
marginal as they are, distort housing markets in the communities
in which they operate. Government agencies, operating in their own
right or as conduits for subsidies to private or nonprofit developers,
make inefficient housing producers; when they assist tenants they
distort the contours of housing demand. Most housing projects developed
by public agencies are expensive to build and maintain, and
usually designed to inferior construction and amenity specifications.
Federally mandated eligibility rules make them islands of extreme
poverty and social dysfunction, even by the standards of the poor
neighborhoods in which they are set. Publicly developed housing is
often so poorly designed that some public housing authorities have
resorted—amid widespread public approbation—to tearing them
down. Even when government programs underwrite privately
owned housing—Section 8, for example—many of the same problems
arise, and others are added. Subsidized for-profit landlords
often overcharge and undermaintain their units, and nonprofit
sponsor-owners often fail as managers or go broke.
This critique, which is now widely accepted, leads inexorably to the
case for housing vouchers. But the most extensive as well as perComment
on Chester Hartman’s ‘‘The Case for a Right to Housing’’ 263
verse market distortions result from the primary objective of all
housing programs—from public housing to vouchers—which is to
subsidize tenants. The most undesirable aspect of tenant subsidies
(including rent control) is that they misallocate housing. The
greater the subsidies, the greater the misallocation. Although the
bedrock principle underlying Hartman’s proposal, as well as most
housing reform efforts, is the promotion of equity, housing subsidies
subvert equity. Households with similar needs or incomes can end
up with housing of widely varying quality, because the subsidized
housing itself varies widely in quality. For households with different
needs or incomes, subsidies can have particularly perverse impacts.
Higher-income households can often secure larger subsidies than
households with lower incomes. Small households may get bigger
apartments than large ones.
But for urban residents, the most distressing misallocation is the
impact housing subsidies have on the social ecology of their communities.
Hartman stresses the importance of good neighborhoods and
clearly assumes that a housing guarantee would move more poor
households into good (i.e., middle-income) neighborhoods. But as
Husock (1997) and others have noted, to the extent that housing
subsidies promote this objective, they undermine the central role
the housing market has traditionally played in rewarding upward
social and economic mobility. Most hardworking, responsible households
see themselves slowly and laboriously climbing a ladder of
housing and neighborhood quality. From their perspective, subsidies
allow less industrious or less responsible households—even those
whose members might be drug dealers and violent teens—to get
better housing than they have and, adding insult to injury, to destabilize
their neighborhoods. In the end, the housing reformers’ objective
is largely unattainable, because working- and middle-class
households cannot be prevented from moving.
Why its putative beneficiaries would not thank us if a
government-guaranteed housing entitlement were
Having government develop or subsidize housing—whether in a
sweeping commitment like Hartman’s or through more typical incremental
programs—cannot satisfy the housing aspirations of
Americans, regardless of income or social class, because housing is
a consumer good, not a public good. While not always stated explicitly,
Hartman’s proposal and most housing reformers’ demands assume
that housing is a public good, or as it is sometimes stated, a
‘‘public utility.’’ When government policy treats a consumer good as
if it were a public good (as happens often in other societies) consumers
are sure to be unhappy. While few goods are purely ‘‘public,’’
264 Peter D. Salins
public goods can be distinguished from private ones by three key
characteristics. Their consumption presumably confers such a significant
benefit on the community that subsidies are justified to
make sure they are consumed in greater quantity or quality than
market forces of supply and demand would occasion. As such, they
are not to be consumed for their intrinsic enjoyment but as the
means to an end. Finally, because they serve the community as
much or more than their consumers, their quality need not rise
much above some threshold of adequacy. From the consumers’ perspective
these criteria mean: (1) there is no relationship between
what consumers pay for a public good and what it is worth, (2) consumers
rarely get much pleasure from a public good, and (3) they
rarely get a public good whose quality rises above a mediocre standard.
All goods that are now heavily subsidized—education, health,
transportation—meet some or all of these criteria; housing does not
and, more to the point, should not.
To begin with, it is hard to demonstrate the community benefit secured
by subsidizing housing. We can be persuaded to pay for our
neighbors’ public education because, arguably, it makes them better
citizens and more reliable workers. Using public funds to confer ostensibly
superior housing on selected members of the community
(regardless of the selection criteria) serves no equivalently compelling
community-wide interest. And the negative community impacts
of inferior housing, in aesthetics or—in extreme cases—public
health, can be more effectively controlled by regulation than subsidies.
But the most salient reason why we should not treat housing
as a public good is that few Americans—regardless of class or income—
view their homes as just a means to an end—that is, as
mere shelter.
Not only can housing vary widely in quality beyond the threshold of
‘‘decent’’ and ‘‘suitable,’’ it can vary widely in design and as a setting
for divergent lifestyles. All Americans—including the poor—
cherish these qualitative differences in their housing. Thus, we
would do the potential beneficiaries of a subsidized housing guarantee
no favor if we adopted a policy that truncated the diverse and
consumer-responsive private housing market by expanding a submarket
of arguably adequate but joyless ‘‘housing as a public good.’’
Wouldn’t vouchers—as in the case of food stamps (another consumer
good supported by subsidies)—allow us to have it both ways:
funding housing as a public good while permitting its quality to reflect
the standards of a private good? Probably not, because the
costs and equity effects (noted earlier) of applying vouchers to as expensive
and variable a commodity as housing lead inevitably to the
establishment of criteria and restrictions aimed at keeping them
within the quality limits of public goods. And the wider or costlier a
Comment on Chester Hartman’s ‘‘The Case for a Right to Housing’’ 265
voucher program becomes, the tighter the restrictions are likely
to be.
There is a policy alternative to a universal housing entitlement.
The most persuasive of the housing advocates’ arguments for a government
role in housing is that not all households are well served
by the private housing market. First, there unquestionably remains
some degree of racial discrimination in the sale and leasing of housing
that needs to be overcome. The best way to do so is not with
housing subsidies or by siting low-income housing developments in
middle-income neighborhoods, but through aggressive enforcement
of antidiscrimination laws. However, the most valid concern of
housing advocates is that households at the bottom of the income
and social scale have a hard time finding good quality housing that
is ‘‘affordable.’’ A recent estimate is that 5.3 million households—
primarily recent immigrants and single-parent families—spend
more than half their income on housing or occupy very inferior
dwellings (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
1998). The proper response to this concern is not to lace unaffordable
housing with producer or consumer subsidies (especially when
they do not necessarily reach the poorest or most deserving households)
but to make privately developed and owned housing ‘‘truly
affordable’’ (i.e., without subsidies). In virtually every other consumer
good sector, private enterprises have been able to serve the
entire spectrum of American households. There is no reason why
housing need be an exception.
To the degree that the American private housing market cannot affordably
serve many of the country’s poorer or more idiosyncratic
households (e.g., the young, the old, the disabled), it is because a
variety of regulations—mainly at the local level—have made it difficult
to do so. Local housing codes (of the kind that Hartman applauds)
have raised the cost of housing production and, more seriously,
have inhibited the adaptation and reuse of existing dwellings
to make them suitable and affordable for poorer, smaller, and nontraditional
households. Unquestionably, the most binding constraints
on housing affordability arise from local zoning and subdivision
regulations, especially in the suburbs. Most suburbs (and
many cities) make housing more expensive by mandating unaffordably
large lot sizes, restricting multifamily housing, prohibiting
manufactured housing, and imposing expensive design and site
standards. The newer generation of local subdivision regulations
not only saddle developers with the full cost of building the municipal
road and utility infrastructure, they set much higher standards
for that infrastructure than are necessary (or than prevail in the already
settled parts of the community). The effects of local regulations
are magnified by the actions of housing lenders that look
askance at lower-cost and untypical housing developments. Just
266 Peter D. Salins
about every dwelling type in which this author lived as he was
growing up—all places that were both affordable and amenable for
a family struggling to make ends meet—would be impermissible in
most localities today.
In conclusion, no, we most certainly do not need or want ‘‘a right to
decent, affordable housing,’’ but yes, we want to assure that everywhere
in the United States we have decent, affordable housing.
Happily, we can count on the private housing market (coupled with
rising prosperity) to do 95 percent of the work in implementing
such an assurance. The remaining 5 percent—mainly devoted to
bringing down the cost of housing because housing quality is a fading
issue—requires concerted measures to scale back onerous housing
regulations that currently prevent private housing developers
and owners from meeting the needs and pocketbooks of lowerincome
and untypical households. It would be nice if housing advocates
like Hartman set aside their anachronistic aspirations and
unrealistic policy nostrums and supported such an effort.
Peter D. Salins is Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs of the State
University of New York.
Husock, Howard. 1997. We Don’t Need Subsidized Housing. City Journal 7(1):50–
Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University. 1997. The State of the
Nation’s Housing: 1997. Cambridge, MA.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1990. 1990 Census of Housing. Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1993. American Housing Survey: 1993. Washington,
DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 1997. A Picture of
Subsidized Households—1997. Washington, DC.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 1998. America’s Affordable
Housing Crisis. Washington, DC.