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Life, Liberty and a Place to Live

Professor’s New Book Proposes a Plan That Could Guarantee Housing for All

By Maggie Haslam

Protesters with signs that read "stop evictions" and "cancel the rent"

Urban studies Professor Casey J. Hawkins' new book attempts to spur conversations between constituencies on various sides of housing debates to explore how property rights can coexist with policy designed to reduce housing inequality.


For the renters in Langley Park, Md. worried that the coming Purple Line will price them out of their neighborhood, the definition of housing justice could not be clearer. The same could be said for residents in nearby Montgomery County, who fought a zoning change to allow backyard apartment dwellings last year, arguing it could lower their property values.

What’s true from either side is that America is in the midst of a housing crisis. But, as Casey J. Dawkins explains, that crisis looks very different, depending on who you ask.

In his new book, “Just Housing: The Moral Foundations of American Housing Policy,” the professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland offers common ground in a murky, contentious and urgent national conversation, and a revised vision of housing justice that could help fulfill the dream of decent housing for all. Dawkins discusses his book tomorrow as part of University Libraries’ series, Speaking of Books.

Dawkins argues that a place of one’s own is not a luxury, but a moral right rooted in an ideal he calls “civil equality”: that housing is an important ingredient of a flourishing American life and is intrinsically tied to all facets of economic and social prosperity.

He unpacks the history of housing tradition and policy in America—from the ideals envisioned by our founding fathers and the traditional American dream to the influence of political structures and contemporary challenges—while drawing on philosophical theories of justice. Connecting the two threads, Dawkins attempts to spur conversations between constituencies on various sides of housing debates to explore how property rights can coexist with policy designed to reduce housing inequality.

“This is a new conception of housing justice, one that can forge a connection and be practical enough that the ideas can be applied in very tangible ways,” he said.

So how can policymakers put the philosophy of “housing as a right” into practice? Dawkins says that strong protections for the rights of occupancy, such as more robust tenant rights, should be adopted locally. He also stresses that housing as a right demands more than a roof over one’s head; rather, it is housing located in places with public infrastructure and free of environmental hazards. But nationally, a concept he calls the “negative housing tax,” where renters and homeowners are treated equally under the tax code, could save billions of dollars, money that could fund a guaranteed housing allowance for low-income households.

“There is no justification for treating homeowners in a privileged way,” he said. “And if you eliminated the mortgage interest tax deductions that go to homeowners, it’s revenue that we could spend to get a lot of people into housing.”

Elements of Dawkins’ idea have floated around for the past couple of decades; tax reform was a popular topic of discussion during the Obama administration, and the idea of offering a guaranteed rental allowance is currently gaining popularity. But, Dawkins said, these two ideas haven’t been married together in the manner described in his book. “Just Housing,” he hopes, will add clarity to the housing conversation and guide new approaches to securing housing for all.

“A legally protected right to housing is urgently needed,” he said. “We owe it to everyone to ensure that people have that minimum level of dignity and respect.”



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