Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Housing for All

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part I: A right to housing, by Kelley.

Participating in the American dream requires a roof over one’s head. It does not have to be a fancy roof, but it does have to provide a little space to get yourself ready for work in the morning and a safe place to tuck your children in at night.

What if the American people and their government decided that having a home was not a privilege, but a right? Imagine a constitutional amendment to that effect:

“Every person has the right to adequate housing regardless of means. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

The moral case for an absolute right to housing should be clear. All people deserve a little corner of the world to help them feel safe and stay healthy. They just do. A lack of housing can prevent progress in any other aspect of one’s life – from finding stable employment to keeping your children in school. Without stable housing, it is difficult, if not impossible, for people to break out of the oppressive cycle of poverty.

The economic case for a right to housing is also clear. Helping individuals and families to secure a place to live allows them to focus on finding employment, addressing health problems, or whatever other roadblocks may exist in their life. This allows them to contribute to the US economy and reduces their dependence on other government aid programs.

The history of housing policy in America is one tainted with efforts to help potential White homeowners, while making it nearly impossible for people of color to purchase a home. From Jim Crow laws to redlining loan policies to deed restrictions to the creation of ghettos, there is no doubt that the United States has an ugly and racist history when it comes to housing.

In recent years, states and cities have taken two distinct approaches to homelessness. The first approach is to criminalize homelessness, allowing individuals to be arrested for being outside at night or even adding active deterrence measures in public spaces. The second approach is to create long-term solutions for the homeless, particularly for homeless veterans.

What if the American people went farther? What if we no longer waited for cities and states to provide housing for their citizens but told our government that housing was a human right and demanded that they act accordingly, providing housing for all of America’s citizens?

We wouldn’t be the first country to do so. The EU has included the right to adequate housing as a part of its human rights charter. Many member states have taken significant steps in making this right a reality for their citizens. Notably, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden have enshrined the right to housing in their constitution.

The moral and economic imperative to make housing a right in the United States exists. The only question is – will anybody act?

November 18, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 151

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Big Ideas for Reforming American Governance — A Better Education Reform Movement and Right to Housing. People: Bill, Kelley, Nate. Produced: November 15th, 2015.

NOTE: No show next Wednesday due to the Thanksgiving break. Don’t miss our December 2nd episode.

Episode 151 (52 min):
AFD 151

Discussion Points:

– What might a better, less top-down version of an education reform movement look like?
– How can we fund public schools more effectively and fairly?
– Should there be a constitutional right to housing?

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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video game blog of our announcer, Justin.

November 11, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 150

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Big Ideas for Reforming American and Global Governance — Health Care Reform and Economic Orthodoxy. People: Bill, Kelley, Nate, Greg. Produced: November 8th, 2015.

Episode 150 (56 min):
AFD 150

Discussion Points:

– What’s next in U.S. health reform?
– Are the orthodoxies of mid-century economics trapping us on 21st century problems?

Related Links

Last week’s episode on state single-payer campaigns
AFD, July 2014: Wall Street wants to make money off “urgent care”
Compare Your Country Health Care Spending
“Kaiser Report finds state budget savings in some Medicaid expansion states”
Washington Post: “US once again has most expensive, least effective health care system in survey”
Naked Capitalism: “Wait: Maybe Europeans are as Rich as Americans”

Subscribe

RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video game blog of our announcer, Justin.

Ranked choice voting for statewide executives?

Below I’ll present passages explaining briefly what ranked choice voting is and then present historical evidence as to why the system might be particularly (perhaps uniquely) suited to the constitutional role of a statewide executive. The latter case I have drawn from the constitutional debates that shaped the late 18th century creation of a governorship model that spread from Massachusetts to the eventual 50 states (as well as influencing the original U.S. setup).

massachusetts-statehouse

The New America Foundation and FairVote, June 2008, on what instant runoff ranked choice voting is, procedurally:

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an election method that determines the choice of a majority of voters in a single round of voting without the need to conduct a separate runoff election. As a majority voting method, IRV is ideal for single-winner offices such as governor […] In recent years, IRV has been implemented for local elections in several American cities, including San Francisco (CA), Cary (NC), Hendersonville (NC), Takoma Park (MD), and Burlington (VT).

An explanation of mechanics and outcomes, also from FairVote:

Ranked choice voting (RCV) describes voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and then uses those rankings to elect candidates able to combine strong first choice support with the ability to earn second and third choice support. RCV is an “instant runoff” when electing one candidate…
– Gives voters the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidate.
– Empowers voters with more meaningful choice.
– Minimizes strategic voting.
[…]
In a single seat ranked choice voting election, sometimes called instant runoff voting, votes are first distributed by first choices. If no candidate has more than half of those votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the active votes or only two candidates remain. The candidate with a majority among the active candidates is declared the winner.

 
Now let’s turn to a 1780 theory on the role of a statewide executive office from the constitutional debates of the State of Massachusetts, described and quoted by Eric Nelson in his 2014 book The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding (pp. 176-177):

But the most extraordinary response to the proposed constitution came from the town of Wells, far to the north of Massachusetts (in present-day Maine). Like the Groton committee, the drafters of the Wells report began by proposing that “the Governor might have a [full] Negative on all Acts of the Legislature.” “We think it very necessary,” they explained, “that the Independence of the Executive and Judicial Departments be well secured – Nor can We conceive of how this can be done effectually unless there be a Power lodged somewhere of negativing such legislative Acts as tend to destroy or violate this Independency–And We are clearly of the opinion that the Governor will be the most fit person to be intrusted with this Power; he being the first Magistrate and the Sole Representative of the whole Commonwealth.” But the authors then added an excursus that was entirely their own. The governor, they insisted, will constitute “the Center of the Union to all the several parts and members of the political Body; who is chosen and constituted by the whole Community to be in a peculiar manner the Guardian of the Constitution and of the Rights and Interests of the whole State–All the Individuals have a like Interest in him and stand in a like Relation to him as their common Representative.” […] “when we consider that the several Members of the Legislative Body are to be chosen only by particular Districts as their special Representatives and many not improbably be often chosen for the very purpose of serving and promoting such Views and Designs of their Constituents as would be injurious to other parts of the State,” the dangers of assembly government become perfectly clear. It follows that “we cannot but think that the Representatives of the Whole People who can have no reason to act under the Influence of such partial Biases and Respects should be furnished with ample and Sufficient Powers to prevent effectively the pernicious Consequences of such narrow Policy, as is calculated to serve the Interest of one part to the injury of another who may happen not to have an equal Interest in the Legislature.”

The authors went on to explain that their heightened sensitivity to the dangers of legislative power, and the corresponding need to invest the chief magistrate with sweeping prerogatives, arose chiefly out of their experience of life on the periphery of a political community. “The distant parts” of the commonwealth, such as Wells, “may Scarce have a single Member to Speak and act on their Behalf” in the legislature, and, accordingly, the two chambers “may be prevailed upon to pass Bills injurious, oppressive and pernicious to a great part of the people.” […] But however estranged they might be from the metropolitan legislature, “we shall always have a Representative in the Person of our Governor, we may claim an equal Interest in him with the other parts of the State.”

 
In other words, rather than electing a statewide executive (whether the governor or further down the ballot) who effectively represents only the plurality of voters who voted for him or her — often mirroring the geographical distribution of the population itself as the legislature already does — an executive would be elected by the whole people in this system.

Each voter would have cast a vote for that governor, in effect, by ranking a list of candidates. The governor would likely be the first or second choice of a much broader range of people than under the current system. He or she would be accountable to and representing the whole of the state, not just the populous parts.

Getting trapped in Reagan’s ideological framing

Ronald Reagan campaigning with Nancy Reagan in Columbia, South Carolina. Oct 10, 1980. (Credit: Reagan Presidential Library)

Ronald Reagan campaigning with Nancy Reagan in Columbia, South Carolina. Oct 10, 1980. (Credit: Reagan Presidential Library)

“Getting trapped in Reagan’s ideological framing” is a theme you can probably expect me to continue to expand upon soon, but I wanted to quote some key passages from an excellent article from July by economist George R. Tyler (formerly of the U.S. Treasury Department), to help set the stage for my future arguments on this point:

…a host of proposals to address wage stagnation and the ensuing economic malaise of middle- and working-class Americans.

Few quibble with the problem, and a host of constructive solutions have surfaced…

Good ideas all, but they share a common framework provided by Reaganomics in which returns to labor are ultimately dictated by market forces. […]

Government wage subsidies, educational enhancements, daycare and the other economic menu offerings shuffle income from taxpayers and employers to the middle class. Yet […] the salad bar contains no market disruptors, the essential ingredient to restoring middle class prosperity.

The reforms are offered within the conceptual framework provided by Reaganomics that eschews market disruptors.
[…]
American middle-class prosperity is being held hostage by Reaganomics. Only when reforms offered by Democrats move beyond that conceptual framework by linking wages to productivity can its prospects brighten.

 
Various specifics come up in Tyler’s article (and many of his other articles) with regard to wages, of course.

But the bigger picture point here is a good one that many Democrats should do well to take a harder look at: Are we on the left no longer seriously pushing big and transformative ideas because we’re still trapped inside an ideological box (or Overton Window) framed by the rhetoric and views of Ronald Reagan and his legion of devotees now in government?

Even many dedicated progressive policymakers, policy developers, and policy activists are perhaps still too constrained in what they imagine in possible and are reluctant to push back — and to push the American people to see government as possible solution and partner, not as the source of all ills like the Reagan Revolution insisted.

Again, more on this down the line, but I want to get the ball rolling with the quotes above.

Don’t “change politics.” Change government, structurally.

The original Progressive Era, from the 1890s to the 1930s, wasn’t just about specific policies. It was partly about fundamentally altering the form of government. Activists amended the U.S. Constitution five times (including direct election of Senators and women’s suffrage), rewrote state constitutions, and passed countless laws that changed the way our local, state, and federal government systems functioned. The initiative and referendum, for example, was a major structural change at a time of highly unresponsive legislative government in many states.

Nearly every state today (with the exception of a few like Massachusetts) has a formal process to initiate a constitutional convention, but many of these states have not held major conventions since the Progressive Era. It is worth recalling that the conventions held nearly a century ago in many places (including Massachusetts) were integral in giving more people the vote, among other vital changes to the organization and forms of our democracy.

But perhaps as importantly, those constitutional conventions also gave those new voters more powerful ways to use that vote, in ways that could again change their structures of government and laws — but directly. Now, unfortunately, far too many citizens are regularly too discouraged to exercise that power (or aren’t even aware they can), leaving it to a minority of citizens.

In response to this disaffection, too many politicians simply say they want to “change politics.” More candidates should say they want to “change government” — literally. Change how it works. I agree that too many candidates make unrealistic promises to voters. But more candidates don’t even promise to try to shift what’s possible. We need our elected leaders not just to leave us better policies than when they entered office, but also better governments – structurally.

Even many modern progressive activists have narrowed their horizons, particularly after so many years of conservatives successfully dominating ballot initiatives on deeply conservative laws and constitutional provisions, from social issues to extreme limitations on taxation and spending. There are, however, so many huge systemic left-leaning changes we could undertake if we organized for hardheaded, serious constitutional reform in the states. After all, before the conservative revolution rolled them back, many of the Progressive Era state constitutions baked in social and economic guarantees often found in other countries today. The right to a living wage for example. Imagine the rights to housing, education, and environmental public safety we could be guaranteeing today, if we were working on major constitutional overhauls as a mass movement.

As long as we’re pushing “voter registration” as a big solution, we might as well let new people know they can vote for literal systems change. That’s a more exciting pitch for turnout than “register to vote and pin all of your hopes and dreams on one of two flawed humans trying their best!”

The U.S. Constitution also allows us to call for a constitutional convention to propose federal amendments for the states to consider. We’ve never used one. If two thirds of state legislatures petitioned Congress, it would authorize a national convention to submit amendments back to the states. Congress could also authorize both a national drafting convention and state ratifying conventions to accelerate debate and votes on proposals.

It is entirely within the power of an organized people in most states to call for state and national drafting conventions. We must be prepared to help organize not just amendment campaigns but actual constitutional conventions in our states (and possibly federally) if we are to have any hope of achieving a second progressive era with far-reaching social democratic gains and broad social inclusion for all the American people.

Expanding Our Horizons

I’ve been a bit concerned of late that the Democratic Party isn’t offering much of a vision to compete with the Republican misery machine. What little has been offered is just that – little. It doesn’t go big. It doesn’t present principles and then offer big ideas to fulfill those principles. So, here are some ideas:

– Everyone fed. Everyone clothed. Everyone housed. Everyone educated. Everyone healthy or being treated. Everyone employed if they can work.
– A Constitution that allows the people to govern themselves. A Government that lifts up its people and does not oppress them.

These are not radical ideas. These are basic ideas. These are not optional ideas. These are necessary ideas. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. This isn’t just an “economics” platform. This is an equal rights platform.

We have to restore our government and restore our vision if we’re going to have communities and a country that meet our founding promises. We can only accomplish big things if we’re willing to imagine that accomplishing big things is possible – and then try.

The American Dream is a popular rhetorical allusion for politicians, as I explored in my research book. But the American Dream is only possible when our leaders are willing to dream big too – to dream up new ideas to help keep and make the Dream real. Every era in American history when there has been opportunity for an entire generation to advance, big creative policies have led the way.

We need bolder leadership for the post-Soviet age and the Internet-access age than we have had so far, particularly since those turning points are themselves decades old.

I don’t want our vision to be constrained by achievements we made 50 or 80 or 100 years ago. I want us to come up with – and then implement – ideas they’ll be talking about 100 years from now.


“We Can Do Better”
“Big government, for the few or the many?”

Abstract from: “I Accept Your Nomination: American Dream Rhetoric in Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches, 1932-2008”