Most politicians are opportunists who will seize on any issue if they think it will help them earn more votes from the general public, and Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris — who is running for president in 2020 — is about as opportunistic as they come.
Harris’s latest apparent effort to capitalize on a relatively apolitical issue is the introduction of legislation to end preventable deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in government-provided housing.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Harris introduced the bill following an in-depth NBC News investigation into the lack of carbon monoxide detectors in government-owned and maintained public housing buildings. The safety devices are currently not required by Department of Housing and Urban Development standards.
According to NBC, at least 11 people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in public housing since 2003. Most recently, two older black men died in a Columbia, South Carolina, public housing apartment complex known as Allen Benedict Court.
The bill put forward by Harris — with matching legislation in the House from Democratic South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham — would mandate that HUD require at least one working carbon monoxide detector per floor, per unit, in all public housing.
The mandate would apply to all government-owned public housing, as well as all federally-subsidized but privately-owned housing under the Section 8 program, at an estimated cost of $10 million over 10 years.
In a statement on Tuesday, Harris said of the deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, “These are preventable tragedies. We must act now to get carbon monoxide detectors in HUD housing to protect the health and well-being of the millions who reside there.”
“The federal government has an obligation to ensure that residents of public housing can raise their families in a safe and healthy environment,” she said, and added, “Housing is a human right.”
Separately, Harris’ office told NBC that HUD was to blame for the tragedies, as the department had “failed to live up to its obligation to ensure safe and hazard-free conditions for Americans living in public housing.”
As for HUD itself, spokesman Raffi Williams said the department was in “total agreement” with the idea and seemed to suggest that it was something the department had already been considering.
“This is a top priority for the Secretary and HUD is currently engaged in a top-to-bottom review of the Department’s inspection standards to protect these families from carbon monoxide and other home health and safety hazards,” Williams explained.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether Harris is correct to say “housing is a human right” or whether the government has any business providing housing for people at all, there should be no debate as to whether the provided housing is safe from easily preventable lethal hazards like carbon monoxide poisoning.
Whether Harris truly is concerned about the handful of public housing deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning or is merely seizing on a non-political issue to pander for more voter support is another question altogether.