Housing Rights For All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States
Barney Frank, U.S. House of Representatives; Miloon Kothari, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing; Maria Foscarinis, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP); Cathy Albisa, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative; Corrine Carey, Human Rights Watch; Linda Couch, National Low Income Housing Coalition; Martha Davis, Northeastern University School of Law; Mayra Gomez, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (CHRE); Rene Heybach, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; Cheri Honkala, Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign; Michael Kane, National Alliance of HUD Tenants; Tara Melish, human rights attorney; Tulin Ozdeger, NLCHP; Brad Paul, National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness; Bruce Porter, Social Rights Advocacy Center; Nan Roman, National Alliance to End Homelessness; Mike Slater, Picture the Homeless; Carol Steele, Coalition to Protect Public Housing; Philip Tegeler, Poverty & Race Research Action Council; Bret Thiele, CHRE; Tanya Tull, Beyond Shelter; Laurel Weir, NLCHP.
"Housing is a human right" declared Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, as she opened a conference sponsored by the Division of U.S. Studies, NLCHP, and the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. While the United States has been active in encouraging protection of human rights abroad, it has been less so in promoting such internationally recognized human rights as housing at home. There is a housing crisis in this country today, Foscarinis continued, with 1.5 million of the country's children homeless and the minimum wage set so low that it is insufficient to provide a full-time worker with the means for adequate housing. The purpose of the conference was to examine what housing as a human right means and ways by which that right might be realized in the United States.
"Housing has been the stepchild of American social policy," Congressman Barney Frank agreed. Calling housing "one of the major victims of tax cuts," Frank noted that almost every federal housing construction program has been shut down in recent years. The president's budget includes a 50% reduction in funding for housing for the disabled, no funding for the construction of new public housing, and the selling off of much existing public housing. While the government's Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, which provides subsidies to enable low-income families to rent or buy homes, has applied to people with incomes that are 30% of the U.S. median income, current proposals would limit such vouchers to people whose incomes equal 60% of the median – which would mean less help for the poorest families. In addition, the administration is promoting home ownership as its policy goal, while most poor families are dependent on rental housing. The inability to afford adequate housing has historically been considered a problem only of the poor but, Frank reported, the problem has become so widespread that police and fire officials in Massachusetts today cannot afford to live in the communities in which they work. Because the country has now learned how to create public housing that is attractive and induces community pride, rather than the kinds of projects that exacerbated social problems in the past, Frank urged activists both to publicize the idea of housing as a human right and to emphasize such political action as acquainting members of Congress with successful examples of federally-financed housing projects.
A session on international human rights law with implications for housing – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) – included examples of the use of human rights language in housing litigation and advocacy before legislative bodies. As a result of advocates' efforts, a number of U.S. states and municipalities have adopted the language of international human rights instruments in their statutes and ordinances. Activists from Illinois and Pennsylvania discussed such efforts, which have resulted in, for example, state and local legislation that creates committees to examine laws and policies for their compliance with or violation of human rights standards.
Miloon Kothari, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, told the luncheon session that homelessness around the world is being increased by factors such as rapid globalization, increasing privatization of housing and basic services, gentrification and growing urban apartheid, domestic violence, demolition of homes, and criminalization of the homeless. He described the United States, Australia, and Canada as particularly egregious examples of developed countries with poor housing policies, and criticized the "culture of silence" about the particular impact of inadequate housing policies on women in those countries and in other nations around the world. Kothari noted that countries such as Kenya and South Africa, with far fewer resources than the United States, are moving toward implementation of housing as a human right.
A session on enforcement strategies included a discussion of the ways in which the inter-American human rights system, and particularly the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, can be used to pursue remedies. Unlike the various U.N. monitoring committees that track signatories' actions under human rights treaties, the Inter-American Commission can issue binding orders in response to individual complaints. It can order full restitution or compensation, can demand a government's guarantee of non-repetition of the offending action, and can require that a government submit a national plan that allocates resources to remedy a human rights violation. It can also request states to adopt specific "precautionary measures" to avoid irreparable harm to human rights in emergency situations, including pending forced evictions and destruction of homes. Yet another strategy involves NGOs providing information to such U.N. bodies as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, whose reports can then be brought to the notice of national legislators.
Turning to the subject of domestic litigation, panelists referred to recent Supreme Court decisions that draw upon international law and to the still limited but increasing references to international human rights law in state court decisions. Including citations of international human rights law in litigation will increase the judges' familiarity with such mandates, and enhance their awareness that the United States regularly invokes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has signed or ratified the ICESCR, ICERD, and ICCPR. Additional strategies for incorporating the human rights framework in judicial proceedings, political mobilization, and public education were discussed in breakout sessions on homelessness advocacy, housing advocacy, and domestic litigation.
Panelists throughout the day commented that litigation strategies and political action such as lobbying must be combined with public education if the right to housing is to be enforced in this country. The understanding that housing is a human right is not only long overdue in the United States, but is also necessary if the dignity of all human beings is to be recognized in this century of globalization and an increasingly interdependent world.
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202/691-4129