The UC Santa Barbara College of Letters & Science, the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and Arts & Lectures hosted a debate on whether or not housing is a human right at Campbell Hall on Feb. 13, per California’s growing housing crisis. 

The Santa Barbara-based Arthur N. Rupe Foundation funds the series since 2000 via endowment. Devin Gowdy / Daily Nexus

The debate — “Is Housing a Human Right?” — was the 15th rendition of the Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate Series established in 2000. The Santa Barbara-based Arthur N. Rupe Foundation funds the series via endowment, aiming to initiate social change through supporting authentic debate. 

The debaters included former Union Rescue Mission CEO Andy Bales, UC Berkeley Terner Center Director David Garcia, PolicyLink Director of Housing Rasheedah Phillips and National Homelessness Law Center Senior Policy Director Eric Tars. 

Larry Mantle, the host of “AirTalk” and “Film Week” on NPR member station LAist 89.3, moderated the debate.

To begin the event, Mantel interviewed fourth-year sociology major, UCSB Rapid Rehousing Coordinator and Santa Barbara County Youth Action Board committee member Jessica Castillo on her personal experiences with the California housing market. 

“My parents were homeless when they arrived to the United States. Luckily, they were able to find housing and I had housing growing up, but it wasn’t the most safe and secure housing. I had siblings and grandparents in a one-bedroom apartment,” Castillo said.

After dropping out in her freshman year due to high housing costs, Castillo was able to return to UCSB, subleasing a house from a mutual friend. Castillo expressed gratitude for resources and support programs at UCSB, including financial aid, CalFresh benefits and grant programs like the laptop grant. 

“I’m grateful that UCSB is a great institution,” Castillo said. “There’s all these growing programs, and we have transitional housing now, in which a student [who] may not have safe and secure housing can stay for free, have a meal plan and housing for about 30 days all free. But obviously, that doesn’t solve everything.”

According to the 2023 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, homelessness in the United States in 2023 reached an all-time high since 2007. On a single night in January 2023, over half a million people in America experienced homelessness, with California accounting for almost half of all unsheltered individuals.

In Santa Barbara County, the 2023 Point in Time Count shows that nearly 2,000 individuals experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2023. Of those people, 64% were unsheltered.

Out of the four panelists, three took the position that housing is a human right. Rasheedah explained that housing is “intrinsically linked to human dignity.”

“It’s about being able to provide a stable base from which people can pursue all the opportunities that they need in life, whether it’s education, health [or] being able to engage in meaningful social and cultural activities,” Rasheedah said.

“And so having secure adequate housing is the thing that will enable people to exercise the other human rights that they have, whether it’s a right to privacy, whether it’s a right to speech [or] a right to pursue happiness.”

Rasheedah also argued that the government is obligated to provide housing, a basic need under the social contract theory, for all its citizens.

“[The social contract theory] posits that the government exists essentially to ensure the basic needs of its citizens; to ensure that those basic needs are met in exchange for governance. That contract implies that it is our duty to protect and ensure access to essential needs, which includes housing,” Rasheedah said.

Bales argued that housing being a human right doesn’t argue for universal, guaranteed luxury, saying the right to housing must begin with more affordable avenues.

“[The right to housing] is not being carried out in a way that is possible or affordable. It’s a myth and a fantasy that we will somehow build very expensive slow-to-develop units with a granite countertop for everybody experiencing homelessness,” Bales said. “This philosophy of housing as a human right led to [California’s] misconception that that means everybody deserves a very expensive unit with granite countertops.”

One of the primary points of discussion during the debate was the Housing First model.  The model prioritizes providing a safe living environment before addressing the other issues surrounding homelessness, Mantel explained.

“Housing First is the view that really before people are going to be able to address mental health problems or addiction, they need to have a safe place to live,” Mantel said. “Then they have the ability to commit, of their own choice, that they are going to get sober or they’re going to take advantage of mental health services that are offered.”

Bales expressed criticism of Housing First, frustrated over how its policies are too lenient toward drug and alcohol use. 

“California is a mess because it’s only carrying out Housing First and the federal policy and state policy that you cannot intervene in any way in drug addiction,” Bales said. “If I as a contractor want to offer family housing, I have to sign the harm reduction model that I won’t intervene in drug use in our family housing.”

Tars disagreed with Bales’s “causational” thinking about Housing First, pointing out that there are other reasons for Housing First has failed in California.

“Correlation is not causation. The fact that homelessness has increased while Housing First has been the primary approach doesn’t mean that Housing First has caused that homelessness. That homelessness has been caused by a deep dearth of affordable housing and the fact that we used to make sure that everybody got a housing subsidy that needed one,” Tars said.

Garcia further supported Housing First, explaining that the model can be very effective when carried out correctly.

“We actually have a lot of good quality research done on the effectiveness of Housing First. So through randomized trials, we know that when done correctly, Housing First shows significant reduction of people falling back into homelessness,” Garcia said.

The panelists also discussed many other facets of the housing crisis including the role of the private sector, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, racial inequality, local opposition to affordable housing projects and more. 

To end the program, the panelists took six questions from UCSB students and Santa Barbara community members, touching on topics like personal responsibility, housing in Isla Vista, proposed legislation and capitalism.

A full recording of the event will be available soon on the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center website. 

A version of this article appeared on p. _ of the Feb. 22, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.