Skip to content

Fair housing is a human right—and a Catholic imperative

Efran Menny explains how discrimination lives on in America and how the right to a roof is a matter of justice.

It was recently reported that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs opened an application for rental assistance. In a matter of days, the agency was flooded with nearly 70,000 submissions. The application, which was supposed to stay open till March 28, closed early due to the overwhelming response of Texans needing immediate help.

With this distressing story, we can reasonably conclude that the outlook on accessing affordable housing is grim. When we speak about the current generation of working adults, economic indicators paint an even more troubling picture. About 70% of young adults indicate that home-buying is a challenge compared to their parents’ generation.

And though affordability of housing presents a hurdle for Americans writ large, when we uncover the condition of Black America, the story is even more complex.

Like many institutions in America, the housing sector has traditionally been a hostile space for Black Americans. Simply put, they have continually been neglected and subjected to racism and bigotry. Whether by race covenants, redlining, or even the nation’s highway system, Black Americans have been placed in the crossfire of deeply discriminatory embedded policies, rules, and laws.

Though Black Americans represent about 14% of the U.S. population, findings suggest that Black Americans represent about 40% of those who are unhoused. Moreover, Black Americans are a significant majority of the unhoused in 12 states, including large numbers in cities where Black Catholics are plentiful. The data on Black Catholic attitudes demonstrate that the majority of them want the Church to assist with needs such as housing.

These crucial points must be carefully considered by those in the hierarchy. It’s incumbent upon official organizations like the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Black Catholic Congress, and local dioceses to heed the requests of this vital segment of the American Church. With 3 million members from diverse backgrounds, the Black Catholic community’s voice is one that cannot be trivialized.

Besides, advocacy for fair housing and addressing homelessness shouldn’t be a contentious topic. For nearly fifty years, the American bishops have been vocal about the importance of our nation’s access to affordable housing and about the crisis of homelessness.

In 1975, the bishops delivered a major pastoral letter, “The Right to a Decent Home: A Pastoral Response to the Crisis in Housing.” Against the backdrop of distressing national statistics about the state of housing deterioration, the bishops declared:

“We cannot deny the crying needs for decent housing experienced by the least of the brethren in our society. Effective love of neighbor involves concern for his or her living conditions.”

What’s more, they understood that this topic has many structural components such as racism. As such, establishing a commitment to racial justice in our housing policy is essential to addressing equal access.

In 1988, with the drastic impact of Reaganomics, the USCCB’s Committee on Social Development and World Peace released a statement that was adapted into “Homelessness and Housing: A Human Tragedy, A Moral Challenge.” One of the suggestions offered within was a housing policy that creates opportunities for specific racial groups. They recognized that in order to make more universal housing a reality, we need measures to combat discrimination.

Though several statements on national policy or letters to Congress have been issued since then by the nation’s Catholic hierarchy, one of the most recent that spoke on housing was “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a teaching document released in 2011 on electoral politics. On the topic of housing access, the bishops emphasized eliminating barriers for racial groups as a policy objective.

Over the decades, we can see the message of the USCCB has been one that seems to support eradicating inequality, eliminating systemic racial bias, and protecting historically marginalized groups from unfair housing practices. With the foundation of having a preferential option for the poor, the American Church can continue to support many wide-reaching and much-needed bold solutions to address our housing and homeless crisis for Black Americans.

Firstly, one practical suggestion to decrease or abolish the racial disparities in housing access is closing the racial wealth gap. Factors such as lack of generational wealth, historic economic obstacles, and student loan debt play a significant role for Black Americans in the home-buying journey. Potential ways to level the playing field for equitable housing access include releasing them from the restraints of crippling student loan debt through complete loan forgiveness options.

Another gap-closing strategy that's been gaining momentum is a federal jobs guarantee. Far from being a “socialist” policy, this suggestion actually has roots in the foundation laid by former president Franklin Roosevelt in his “Second Bill of Rights.” Currently supported by legislators such as Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, this could be a start for more equitable home ownership.

Equally important is enforcing and regulating our housing policy. Though the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was a landmark anti-discrimination bill and was supposed to combat incidents of racism and segregation in housing, we still see countless examples of discriminatory policies. It’s almost as if the law was never passed. On the lack of compliance, the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity declared in 2008 that:

“The current federal system for ensuring fair housing compliance by state and local recipients of housing assistance has failed. HUD must reform its current structure by strengthening its leadership…”

Additionally, a group of Democrat U.S. Senators released their own statement in 2020, stating that:

“Despite the Fair Housing Act’s clear direction to HUD and its grantees to affirmatively further fair housing, HUD failed for decades to fully implement this provision.”

With these facts in hand, it’s clear that more pressure from the nation’s Catholic bishops for compliance in the full implementation of FHA could be a necessary step to reverse the decades-long abuses.

Lastly, our homelessness crisis also needs to be addressed. Specifically, one aspect to consider is how gentrification is wreaking havoc on Black Americans. For example, research performed by the University of Texas suggests that in Austin, 70% of zip codes that the unhoused cite as their last residence are gentrified and are overwhelmingly non-White. To combat this, clergy and Catholic-affiliated social agencies could educate renters and owners in low-income and working-class communities on the effects of the changing community dynamics. In addition, the creation and enforcement of stronger tenant rights and even supporting community land trusts (CLT) could help stop this displacement.

Also notable here is some charitable services’ impulse to force work on vulnerable recipients. Simply developing pathways to self-sufficiency and conditional in-kind benefits can’t be seen as the go-to when people seek assistance. Though work is a necessary aspect of life for most Americans, not all work involves equal dignity, value, or pay. We also don't know the unseen disabilities, unknown circumstances, or comorbidities that may prevent people from seeking employment. To meet the housing needs of those susceptible to being unsheltered, we should be in the habit of helping others for the sake of simply keeping people housed.

This topic of accessing housing is one I'm familiar with. For about seven and a half years in our marriage, my wife and I were renters. After years of experiencing unprecedented rent increases, a failed attempt at homebuying, and varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the quality of our residences, we purchased our first home in October 2022. Though we were thankful to take advantage of incentives and discounts that drastically reduced our closing costs, factors like our student loans and possibly contributing negatively to historically Black Houston communities came up in the process. Moreover, while we found a new community that fit our needs, the home-buying process enlightened me to the many embedded prejudices that Black Americans encounter.

With this newfound realization, I feel it's imperative that the Catholic hierarchy rally behind true solutions that dismantle long-standing racist housing practices. Given their multimillion-dollar involvement in fighting legislation for sexual abuse victims, we know they have the political willpower to lobby for issues that they deem important. As such, they should prioritize a deeper understanding of how sin has permeated our social structures and policies, creating the disparity and marginalization in accessible housing for Black Americans.

Responsibly assisting those experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness is a step toward justice. When we prioritize protecting our most vulnerable and creating pathways to affordable and decent housing, our nation does better by itself in supporting the least of these.

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

Want to support the work of BCM? You have options.

a.) click to give on Donorbox

b.) click to give on Facebook