The New York City’s affordable housing crisis has brought housing advocates together to seek political solutions to what is commonly seen as an economic problem: There is not enough housing to meet the demand; consequently the price of housing â€“ rent â€“ has skyrocketed. But advocates in some other cities are finding more ammunition for their efforts: They are citing international treaties that oblige governments to respect a human right to adequate housing. Their efforts could lead to a national movement that would bring housing advocates â€“ and other human rights advocates â€“ together in a new and more powerful way, they assert.
Property Rights and Housing Rights
The idea that housing is a human right is hardly new, but it is not nearly as developed as the concept of property rights. Property rights remain the basis for most law in the United States, continuing a long legal tradition that stretches back to ancient Rome.
Probably every school kid learns that in order to vote in the early colonies, a man (and only men) had to own property. In New York, the significance of property rights is obvious as soon as you look at the state’s laws: Between the city and the state, there are volumes of laws that apply to real estate, with power based on ownership. Much other law, too, derives from the premise that someone’s property has been damaged or stolen.
A human rights paradigm, on the other hand, centers on the idea that the simple fact of being alive qualifies a person for certain protections. While this idea has existed for thousands of years, it is not as inculcated in our laws as property rights are.
In this country, some rights, such freedom of speech, extend to everyone. “The way our history has unfolded in the U.S., there has been a very deliberate march toward what are called civil and political rights â€“ the right to free assembly, most that are enshrined in the constitution â€“ and less about rights that have to do with living a life that is free of poverty," said Ejim Dike, director of the Urban Justice Center’s human rights project.
As a result, the idea that housing is a human right to be protected and promoted draws a lot of confused expressions.
“It is a kind of startling concept for our society,” said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, which represents renters in the metropolitan area and works to elect pro-tenant candidates to office. “Housing is seen as a commodity to buy, sell and get rich off of.”
The closest the United States has come to a right to adequate housing may have been in the 1949 Housing Act, which called for “the realization as soon as feasible of a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”
A New Tactic
Frustration at what they see as government inaction, particularly at the federal level, on the housing problem has led housing advocates to embrace the human rights approach.
“There’s really no excuse for homelessness or living in inadequate housing in this country,” said Bret Thiele, coordinator of the economic, social and cultural rights litigation program at the Centre on Human Rights and Evictions. “It’s political will, it’s political decisions that lead to people being homeless and poor.”
The right to adequate housing, according to Thiele, means that government must ensure people have housing that is habitable, affordable, located appropriately (not in polluted areas or too far from schools or other important services) and accessible for people with physical disabilities or other conditions. People should not be not subject to arbitrary eviction, harassment or other threats.
“All too often in the U.S., economic and social issues are seen as charity work,” Thiele said. “Human rights language says these are obligations the government has to make sure are respected. That really shifts the paradigm. It’s no longer the poor asking for something; it’s the poor demanding that the government meet its obligations.”
Dike echoed Thiele’s comments. “The government has an obligation to make sure that everyone has access to adequate housing,” Dike said. “Right now what we depend on is the political will or the charity of whoever is in power. We depend on the legislative process, which is good, but at the end of the day we cannot take a case to court to demand safe and affordable housing.”
Rights Without Laws
Many believe that a right is virtually meaningless if no law exists to protect it. International treaties may oblige governments to respect the human right to adequate housing, but very few laws actually exist to insure that.
The 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, while not legally binding, calls for a right to adequate housing. The United States signed the declaration and has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While the covenant dos not explicitly set out a right to adequate housing, it does contain rights relevant to it. The United States has also signed â€“ but not ratified â€“ the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
“The United States has a poor record of ratifying and a poor track record of implementing” human rights treaties, Thiele said.
Housing advocates trying to use the human rights approach assert that the United States is sufficiently obliged, under international law, to respect the human right to adequate housing. What that actually means remains unclear â€“ but is becoming clearer around the world, around the country and, gradually, in New York City.
In Scotland, France and South Africa, laws now assert that the people have a right to adequate housing. In 2003, Scottish lawmakers passed a homeless act creating an “immediate right” to adequate housing, and French lawmakers established a similar law in 2007. The right is even more explicitly codified in South Africa.
In Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans and Minneapolis, to name a few cities, housing advocates are using human rights as a framework for their efforts. In their work with homeless people, activists are noting violations and, in their lobbying activities, they are pushing for local laws to establish a right to adequate housing.
Rights and Violations in New York
Housing advocates in New York City are not widely using a human rights approach. Some are not aware of the approach; others see it as impractical â€“ at least for now.
(Vincent Villano, who works for the organization I work for, has studied the human rights approach closely and has been advocating its use in a variety of ways. he provided me with a broad variety of materials on the issue.)
New York City and the state do have comprehensive human rights laws. With regard to housing, these measures generally get cited only when people discuss laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, citizenship status and the like. A human right to adequate housing goes beyond addressing such rampant discrimination.
According to Cathy Albisa of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative it would extend to security of tenure for renters and owners, affordability and the adequacy of the home, including its structure and location. “These concepts are not sufficiently present in our development of policy to mitigate the insecurity that the market can create for housing,” she wrote in an email.
New York State does have laws that promote or protect the right to adequate housing. Two laws stand out: the 1975 warranty of habitability, which requires that an apartment be free of hazardous conditions and generally livable before a landlord can collect rent, and rent regulation laws, which guarantee a tenant a variety of protections, including an automatic lease renewal. That particular provision protects tenants from arbitrary eviction and harassment â€“ at least on paper. And in 1997 the New York City Aids Housing Network successfully lobbied City Council to pass legislation that establishes the right for people with HIV and AIDS.
Further applying a human rights approach to housing in New York City would reveal that the city and state governments are not fulfilling the right to adequate housing â€“ and in some respects violate that right.
“Tenants have no rights in apartments that are not regulated,” said McKee. “This is a big problem. They have no right to tenure, for example. And that makes it very hard for them to complain about repair problems or service problems â€¦. The landlord will simply not renew the lease if they complain.”
The city and state fall short in a number of areas:
â€˘ Housing that is not handicap or otherwise accessible
â€˘ The persistence of pollution in parts of the city that lead to high rates of asthma
â€˘ Repeated housing code violations and the failure to compel landlords to address such violations
â€˘ The loss of rent regulated apartments and the existence of other unregulated units, which leaves many tenants open to arbitrary evictions and harassment.
The state and city governments have attempted to address some of these issues. Last week, for example, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced efforts to go after the city's worst landlords and get them to repair their properties. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched an effort to build more affordable homes in the city.
Such programs, though, remain subject to the vagaries of politics. Currently, there is no guarantee that the government will act to ensure that decisions on housing "ensure security and affordability,” Albisa said. Instead, she continued, "We have policies that are at odds with each other.”
Establishing a human right to decent housing would create a framework that would outlast the coming and goings of various mayors and governors and strengthen the push for programs to provide adequate housing.
Using a human rights approach, advocates working on these issues could assert at tenant meetings and in discussions with policy makers that the city’s failures to address them adequately are human rights violations. The language alone carries a force unknown in the current discussions of these problems.
Putting Idea into Action
For now, advocates are trying to learn what the human rights approach means and how it could be applied in their efforts.
“It’s a very interesting idea and suggests a number of possibilities,” McKee said. “But I don’t know what it’s going to take to get it to a level where people take it seriously. There’s an old chant that housing is a human right. But I don’t know if people really believe it in the sense that they think it’ll really fly.”
In conjunction with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions trains housing advocates to use a human rights approach in various aspects of their work, from organizing tenants to lobbying for legislation to filing lawsuits when the right to adequate housing is violated. A training workshop for New York City advocates is expected in 2008, Thiele said.
Advocates are seeing signs that the approach is gaining momentum, even if its full use is years off . “Developing and using new advocacy tools is always a difficult and challenging piece of work,” Albisa wrote. “But when our existing frameworks and standards are failing brutally to protect basic needs, it is imperative to look for new approaches that can move us socially in new directionsâ€¦.When one considers the seismic shifts in how we define equality at key points in the last few centuries, though, it is clear that the evolution of rights is not only possible, but necessary.”
Thiele said progress has been made since his organization began working on the issue in 2003. “What we’re trying to do is create a movement, much like the Civil Rights movement of the '40s, '50s and '60s," he said. "It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â
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