By Izzak Mireles
Amid skyrocketing housing prices and a widening gap between the rich and poor, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. went without shelter on a given night in 2018. Nearly 24 percent of that population is concentrated in my home state of California.
But homelessness is not about numbers; it's about people. Housing is at the core of everyday life. Reframing it as a human right deconstructs its capitalistic ties and establishes a basic threshold: Everyone unequivocally deserves to have an adequate place to sleep at night.
Planners cannot be neutral when it comes to homelessness. We must holistically address the needs of the unhoused population. But where can we start?
During a recent town hall in my community, a general plan amendment was proposed to rezone a property, currently in use for a racket club, for a 100 percent affordable housing project. I was there to support the project, and I was hoping to hear similar views, but what I heard was the opposite.
The room was full of NIMBYs and affordable housing opponents citing traffic and community character as points of objection. One said, "We should address the homeless issue instead of building homes," and immediately attendees stood and applauded.
Ultimately, the project was shelved after council members announced their opposition — resulting in a huge loss in affordable housing. I did my community a disservice by not speaking out in favor of the project and explaining that building affordable housing is the best way to address homelessness.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Gathering support for a segment of the population with no political clout — like unhoused people — requires coalition building and convincing people to have a "Yes in My Back Yard" perspective. And as planners, we have the technical expertise that can be used to educate our communities and foster that change.
Instead of being inhibitors, we should stand in solidarity with advocates for the unhoused population. By sharing our knowledge, we ensure that these movements gain traction and transcend beyond ideas and into political action — and that starts with a conversation and a willingness to get involved.
We need to leverage planning as a political force. While planning is transitioning from a profession that overtly pinned communities of color into enclaves of inequality to one that is progressing toward a community-first, embedded approach ("We Cannot Plan from Our Desks," Planning, October 2018), there is still work to be done. Following in the footsteps of Paul Davidoff, who envisioned planners as advocates extending their expertise beyond what was strictly required of them, I too am asking us to do more.
To quote APA's Planning for Equity Policy Guide, "The goal of social justice is not met when underserved populations shoulder the weight of untenable living conditions, and subsequently, experience no material benefit after improvements are implemented." Until unhoused people are no longer being attacked and intimidated in the streets, and until more affordable housing has been built, this goal has not been met.
Housing is a human right. Let's treat it as such.
Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.