Housing: the Moral Imperative


In the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), in Isaiah chapter 65:22, we read, “They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

What is this verse saying to us? It is saying that in the righteous world to come and age, a house is and will be something to live in—not something for speculators to flip or rent out and keep raising the rates of the rent at the behest of speculators directly or indirectly. More importantly, it will return humanity to what a house should and must be: a place for people to live.

In essence, a house is not only for shelter, but also for survival, because without a house, a person’s existence is greatly impacted. Lack of housing can also cause a lot of hardship for families and individuals both physically and mentally. For example, when the ancient Israelites entered the Promised Land, the land was divided between all the families and no one was landless. Even in the case of the Levi tribe, they did not have a tribal territory, but they had individual land .Why was this so? This was so because they understood that a society can only function if the most basic of human needs are addressed and is available to all. Housing is a basic human need because it is about shelter from the elements and protection.

Coupled with this was the Jewish concept that every 50 years the land returns to the original owner. Thus even if they person sells the land, it was returned to the original family or individual owners, meaning that no one was ever displaced because of an economic system based on speculation and greed. Therefore, then, no one is ever pushed out or forced from their land, or become landless. No one was forced out of an area because of gentrification in which speculators would come in and raise the price of rent to drive out the current residents. The land was considered to be sacred.  This is fundamental because, yes, there is a place for free enterprise; however, it should not be allowed in areas that are basic human needs, such as housing, healthcare, water, and air. One only need to look at the situation in Flint Michigan to see the results of making these basic needs a subject to market forces.

As a rabb, it is important to note that all religions share this base understanding that we must do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Case in point, the Jewish sage Hillel was once asked by a man to sum up the Torah, and Hillel responded, “What you yourself hate, don’t do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary. Go and study. Other faiths such as Christianity have the golden rule, Judaism with the 10 commandments, and the other faiths, including Islam and Buddhism.” Though the adherents may not always follow these, edicts are always a guide post.  My work over the years with the interfaith coalition for immigration rights caused me to see this first hand. 

Now in furtherance of this conversation, there has been much talk of the market forces as a means to solve the housing crisis, but this is just a wild-eyed dream of a nincompoop.

Why? Because market forces are about maximizing profit with minimal lost. Therefore, it will never address and can never address moral issues. For example, what would have happened had President Lincoln decided the Civil War was too expensive and stopped fighting? In essence, moral values require more than making money.

What is happening in the housing market is a moral issue—not an economic one. Why is this? This is so because we are seeing cases of rents being increased by 500 percent or even a 1000 percent. Now, there are those who would say that this is the result of a shortage in the housing market, but that is nonsense. A landlord can easily make a profit with a 10 or 20 percent increase. Fundamentally speaking, what we are also seeing are speculators maximizing profits at the expense of the community.  Communities are being destroyed because of greed. A community is more than just a piece of land. It is family, history, culture, tradition, morals and values. Thus, when people are forced out, there is a moral issue involved. The so-called notion of “hot” areas are a speculator’s dream, because they flip properties: They buy a property and resell it quickly. They can also increase the rent 500 or 1000 percent with no regard for the impact on the families or the community.

A house is something for people to live in, and not a commodity. The house is a moral symbol of community and its values of living together, working together and playing together. It is part of an interconnected whole.

In regards to San Francisco, first and foremost, a person should live where they work. In this case, this may translate to the thousands of tech workers that have flooded San Francisco moving to Mountain View, San Jose, Cupertino, and other areas. Currently, tech companies have commuter buses in San Francisco which bring workers to their jobs outside of the city, and which speculators can use a tool for leverage to raise rents in the areas surrounding tech bus stops. Another issue is that a great many buyers are from other countries buying houses as an investment. One solution could include making the buyer live in the house that they buy. In the end, making money and morals are diametrically opposed positions and cannot be reconciled.

In furtherance of this moral imperative, I therefore endorse the following propositions:

YES on Prop S. Prop S would provide millions to ending family homelessness and saving the arts in San Francisco without raising any taxes.

NO on Prop Q. Prop Q would ban tent encampments and authorize their removal after a 24 hour notice without providing or expanding any social services or housing.

NO on Prop R. Prop R would take 60 police officers away from neighborhood units into a new centralized unit to respond to non-emergency 311 calls. This measure was put on the ballot without the consent of the Police Commission. It sets no standards for community policing or how to reform the department that still has much work to do to build relationships with our diverse communities–relationships that are central to neighborhood safety.