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Oh, Give Me A Home

by Rafi Rom and Noah Levitt Home

3/24/05

“In Chicago, we decided we weren't going to be homeless,” said Deidre Brewster, an organizer with the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. She was addressing an alliance of poor peoples' groups and legal advocates who gathered in Washington, D.C. last Friday for a historic hearing that would shed light on human rights violations occurring across the Americas.

After six years of efforts by human rights attorneys, the Organization of American States held an historic hearing about housing as a human right. The Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign, which requested the hearing, along with other groups from the U.S., Brazil and Canada, told the OAS that under international law, governments are not only obligated to respect one's home, but are also required to ensure everyone has safe, clean and permanent housing. All of our countries, including the United States, are falling far short of this standard, the Campaign argued.

“One thing about human rights violations in this country is that all of them can be prevented,” Cheri Honkala, national PPEHRC spokesperson, told the crowd. “On behalf of our brothers and sisters, we won't beg for these human rights, but we demand them.”

Article XXV of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, perhaps the most sweeping endorsement of social welfare ever proclaimed, guarantees “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of every person, and specifically includes housing. This Declaration, recognized by the United States and many other countries, inspired these housing activists to bring their case.

Inside the grandiose headquarters, the coalition and their legal team testified before the OAS' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a body where human rights abuses by governments are investigated and condemned. At the hearing, Carole Steele, president of the Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing, testified that the federal government's withdrawal of a commitment to public housing has been a disaster in her city. “The facts tell a horrible story,” said Steele. “Sixteen thousand units of public housing demolished, with less than 1,500 replacement units for families built.”

Steele has first-hand knowledge of housing rights violations, as a lifetime resident of the Cabrini-Green Project. Like many other projects in Chicago and across the U.S., most of the Cabrini complex is slated for demolition, financed in part by the federally-funded program, HOPE VI.

According to Steele's testimony and recent reports on Chicago's demolition plan, the Chicago Housing Authority is systematically demolishing homes and not building anywhere near the number of new units needed as replacements. Of the 23 buildings that once comprised the Robert Taylor Homes, the city has demolished 21, and very few of the former residents have received promised new "mixed-income" housing.

The housing crisis Steele described in Chicago is a nationwide phenomenon. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in January 2005 that nearly 95 million people in the U.S. have trouble affording adequate housing. A recent study of affordable housing in Philadelphia found that 60,000 people were in need of adequate housing. According to some estimates, about the same number of houses lies empty due to forced evictions. Moreover, the Bush administration budget proposes slashing more than 10 percent of the HUD budget for the coming year.

While most of those who attended the hearing were U.S.-based housing activists, the hearing had a hemispheric focus. The regional framework outlined by the legal committee applies to every country that ratified the OAS Charter. Examples of housing rights violations in Brazil and Canada were also presented to the commission.

Grassroots movements in other parts of the globe have embraced the strategy of framing housing as a human right in their advocacy efforts. For example, in India, Rajeev John George, convener of the National Forum on Housing Rights, successfully challenged forced evictions in Indore, in part by framing housing as a human rights violation. And in South Africa and Brazil, landless people's movements have been successful in drawing attention to the plight of landless and homeless people in these countries.

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, argued that forced evictions from public housing, “sweeps” of homeless people, inadequate housing, and racially segregated access to housing are human rights violations based on international law. She also pointed out how African-Americans and other minority groups are disproportionately denied this right: in her testimony, Steele said of the 21,600 public housing residents displaced in Chicago, 90% of them are African-American.

As Tara Melish, PPEHRC's counsel at the hearing, stated in setting out the regional legal framework, adequate housing is not only a right protected independently in international law, but it's component elements-the rights to privacy, property, security, humane treatment, due process, association, equality, life-are also universally recognized rights in all countries.

“We hope that your shining the light on these problems will bring national and international attention to our government's disregard for this basic right,” wrote Judy Guay, the President of Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods, in a letter to the OAS supporting the hearing.

The OAS hearing both legitimizes the struggle for decent housing and raises awareness. Although this was the first time the OAS looked specifically at housing violations, it will not be the last time it is bought before them. PPEHRC has already submitted a formal invitation to the Commission's Rapporteur to the U.S. to visit Philadelphia and Chicago to see the depth of the housing crisis in the U.S.

At a celebration at the conclusion of the hearing, Bob Brown, chair of the PPEHRC legal committee, noted that the legal channel is only one of several means PPEHRC is pursuing to bring its demand for adequate housing and economic social rights to fruition. While continuing to pressure further advancement at the international level, the Campaign will also fight for housing as a human right through civil disobedience and taking over empty homes. In the U.S., the struggle to have the idea of housing as a human right is still in its infancy but Friday's hearing before the OAS gave it legs to stand on.


Rafi Rom is a member of the Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign legal committee. Noah Leavitt is Advocacy Director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and member of the PPEHRC legal committee. This article was previously published in Alternet.org

 

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