Why I wrote Just Housing

My book, Just Housing: The Moral Foundations of American Housing Policy, was released earlier this week. Why write a book about housing justice, why now, and what can readers expect to take away from the book?

The book’s origins can be traced to my work in the fair housing policy arena, where community developers have clashed with pro-integration fair housing advocates, claiming that the aim of integrating neighborhoods through residential mobility and mixed-income housing strategies distracts attention from the more important goal of housing low-income people of color in the places where they currently live. Similar tensions exist beyond the fair housing arena. YIMBYs want to remove the regulatory constraints impeding private sector housing production, while PHIMBYs call for a large-scale social housing program. For smart growth advocates, the roots of the housing crisis lie in the geography of new housing construction: we have too few affordable high-density housing options in places that are accessible to the things that make urban life worth living.

Different sides of the US housing policy debates appeal to the idea of “housing justice” to defend their proposals for reform, but what is housing justice, and how does housing justice differ from other moral concerns? What is gained by modifying “justice” with “housing?” What does it mean to say that everyone has a right to housing, and who has a duty to fulfill that right?

In my search for answers to these questions, I discovered a gap. Political and moral philosophers have created a cottage industry around the topic of justice but rarely explore how to apply abstract conceptions of justice to real-world policy problems. At the same time, urban planners and policy advocates often speak the language of justice and rights without acknowledging the work done by philosophers to help us understand what justice means or requires.

In Just Housing, I tried to forge a path forward by constructing a conception of housing justice that was defensible, informed, interdisciplinary, and practical. The defense of the conception of housing justice offered in the book assembles the basic elements of justice—conceptions of value, principles, grounds, scopes, and bases—into a normative framework that acknowledges housing’s distinctive qualities and its socially constructed meaning. This book is my most interdisciplinary work to date. The normative arguments put forth in the book draw upon material from the disciplines of philosophy, history, law, political science, sociology, economics, and urban planning. I also tease out the practical policy implications of the book’s theoretical and conceptual arguments.

In thinking about housing justice, I have come to believe that housing policy debates can also help to inform larger conversations in social, moral, and political philosophy. In one section of the book, I explain how “luck egalitarianism,” the moral philosophy developed in conversation with John Rawls’s seminal theory of justice, provides a partial but incomplete framework for understanding housing justice. I also discuss how housing justice sheds new light on the tension between state neutrality and the ideal of personal autonomy. Finally, the book demonstrates how to navigate between ideal and nonideal theory when constructing a justice-oriented, right-based program for social reform.

I hope you enjoy the book. I have already begun thinking about the sequel, so stay tuned!

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