When I go to rallies and marches for progressive social change, I often hear the phrase chanted “Housing is a human right!” and I wonder to myself – what does that even mean? I’ve recently concluded more than four and a half years as the Housing Organizer at Jewish Community Action. In that time organizing Jews and allies to advocate for affordable and stable housing for every Minnesotan, I can tell you that, right now, nothing guarantees housing as a human right.
Last month, in speaking to TC Jewfolk about Sukkot, I commented on the nature of mitzvot, and how I see the relationship between mitzvot and housing. How we view the relationship between human rights and mitzvot at JCA is a significant factor in how we decided to support both the Home To Stay campaign in Minneapolis and the Keep St. Paul Home Campaign in St. Paul in support of rent stabilization.
In St. Paul, the City Charter (which is like a city constitution) is already set up in a way to be amended to include a Rent Stabilization provision. This is why in St. Paul, voters will be voting on a specific policy that would cap annual rent increases to 3 percent. In Minneapolis, the City Charter needs to be first amended to allow for future Rent Stabilization legislation. If successful in November, Minneapolis would be able to work through the normal legislative process to craft a rent stabilization policy.
As Jews, we don’t often use a Rights framework in our ethics; we are part of the Brit or Covenant with God. A social contract, as it were. The mitzvot instruct us how to act, they obligate us. They obligate us to God, and to each other. Obligations and Rights are tied closely together, for if someone has a Right to something, another party must be obligated to fulfill it.
Sitting on the banks of the Jordan, looking out over the promised land he will never enter – Moshe tells the Israelites all the mitzvot, all the ways of being they must embody, to stay in the right relationship with God, each other, and the land they inhabit. So much of what Moses speaks into existence will be new for the Israelites, drastically different from the life they lived before. Entering the promised land required a new ethic for how to be in the world.
Here the Torah shows us that we must speak into being the visions of a better world before they can be real. For years, JCA’s Housing and Economic Justice campaigns have shown a light on the ways the housing market impacts our most vulnerable neighbors; how landlords acting in bad faith neglect repairs, tow residents’ cars, and indiscriminately raise rents. Rent stabilization is an immediate solution to stopping the drastic rent increases that cause displacement of our most marginalized neighbors, while still allowing rents to increase for taxes, inflation, and the like. Rent stabilization puts into law a thing us Jews have known for thousands of years, that we are obligated to protect and keep each other. If we believe housing is a human right, we must first pass rent stabilization this fall.