Housing is a Human Right…That’s the Word on the Street

Hi,

My name is Emma and I’m one of the Homesharing Counselors at St. Ambrose. This year I am participating in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a national program that matches college-educated individuals with a non-profit for a year to learn about issues of social justice in the United States. Part of my goal working at St. Ambrose this year is to learn about housing equity. Someone once told me the difference between housing equality and equity by telling me a metaphor about people who need shoes. Equality means that everyone gets shoes, while equity means that everyone gets shoes that actually fit their feet. I was drawn to St. Ambrose because they not only work to help people find housing, but housing that really fits their needs.

___________________________________________________

As one way of broadening my understanding of housing equity, on November 23rd, I attended an event called “Sleep Out for Housing Justice.” The event, sponsored by Baltimore nonprofit Housing Our Neighbors, brings together people who are currently or formerly homeless with housing advocates and community members. Among the organizations represented there were St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Health Care for the Homeless, Word on the Street, and students from Loyola and UM’s Social Work programs. Together, we shared a meal, participated in a public forum. Following the forum, those tough enough to brave the bone-chilling winds slept outside City Hall for the night, in solidarity with those who have no other place to sleep. The event was designed to bring awareness about homelessness and to generate discussion about how housing policy is supposed to be and the reality on the ground.

Housing Our Neighbors did an excellent job organizing this event. When we arrived at the park, everyone received a hot bowl of rice and chili, with a vegetarian option available for those who don’t eat meat. It can be hard to find vegetarian food or nutritious options when you’re living on the street, one man informed me. When you lose your housing, you lose the freedom to eat what you want, when you want, and even to practice your religion–which, for some religious affiliations like Buddhism, can mean a vegetarian diet.

Another freedom that you lose when you lack stable housing is the ability to go to the bathroom when and where you need to. If you’ve ever needed to use the restroom downtown and haven’t wanted to buy something to do so, you have some idea of how frustrating this can be: Baltimore City law prohibits public urination, yet lacks public bathrooms. Imagine now that you don’t have any money to purchase access to the restrooms and you’re sleeping outside. You face the choice of urinating in the street at night and facing a nearly $1,000 fine, which, unpaid, could lead to prison time….or holding it and risking a bladder infection, leading to hospitalization and costly medical fees. Is this fair treatment for people forced to live on the street?

We like to think that this kind of situation is someone else’s problem, and couldn’t happen to ourselves, personally. But homelessness–defined by health organizations as a lack of permanent housing–can happen to perfectly ‘normal’ people, and is often not the individual’s fault. Homelessness can be the result of sudden changes like illness, divorce, or the death of a family member, which cause mental distress and ultimately result in financial distress.

Now, homelessness is an epidemic that has not existed forever. When my mother was my age, back in the 1970s, you didn’t see twenty people sleeping out on the street on any given night. So what is its cause and what is its solution?

A member of Housing Our Neighbors pointed out that it is important to give people a hand-up, rather than a hand-out. Reflecting on this concept, I realized that St. Ambrose is one of the organizations working to give people a hand up. For those already facing foreclosure, our Foreclosure Prevention provides free one-on-one counseling about how to negotiate with mortgage lenders and budget a plan to stay up on mortgage payments. For those interested in sharing their home as a way to earn extra income, or in sharing someone else’s home as a low-cost housing option, our Homesharing program carefully screens individuals and matches them with one another based on personal preferences.

Monday morning, I returned to work at St. Ambrose with a greater understanding of the nature and importance of housing equity. True, some people, like me, choose to sleep outside sometimes for fun. Coming from a Pacific Northwest background, I enjoy camping with friends on occasion. But no one should have to sleep outside every night. When someone is ready to settle down with their family—or needs a place where they can live together with their kids—or simply needs shelter when the temperatures dip below freezing at night—we at St. Ambrose believe they should have that opportunity.

For the Baltimore Sun’s take on Sleep Out for Housing Justice, you can click on this link: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-24/news/bs-md-ci-housing-justice-20131123_1_public-housing-housing-justice-inner-harbor

Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N.

And we’re back: we will resume our regular weekly posting shortly.

In the mean time, we encourage readers to take a look at the website of Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N., an advocacy organization whose stated purpose is pasted below.  The website of A.C.T.I.O.N.–an acronym for A Call to Invest In Our Neighborhoods–contains several of excellent resources and news updates.

Affordable Rental Housing A.C.T.I.O.N. (A Call To Invest in Our Neighborhoods) is a grassroots campaign led by a broad, cross-industry coalition of over 290 national, state, and local organizations.

Through Housing Credit advocacy and education, the A.C.T.I.O.N. campaign focuses on ensuring that low-income working  families  throughout the nation have access to decent, safe, affordable rental housing.

As the 112th Congress considers tax reform and deficit reduction solutions, the campaign has reconvened to revise its strategy in light of the changed political and fiscal environment.  Moving forward, A.C.T.I.O.N. will focus on both protecting and preserving the Housing Credit in whatever deficit reduction or tax reform plan Congress considers, and enacting national consensus proposals to sustain the program’s  effectiveness and efficiency in solving the nation’s affordable rental housing challenges.

Can the Government Help the Housing Crisis?

 

Rep John Beohner on the CBS program, “Face the Nation” (Image Source: CBS)

Readers of this blog likely know that over the last few years, the government has experimented with several programs that aim to alleviate the mortgage foreclosure crisis and in turn, bolster the housing market and the U.S. economy.  However, it’s no secret that many of the government’s flagship programs, like the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and similar initiatives administered by various federal agencies, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have fallen short of their stated goals.

However, in spite of all of these setbacks, Americans and their elected representatives by and large have maintained a sense of optimism that the housing market and the economy will recover, until recently.  While some skeptics posit that the housing market is permanently beyond its golden days, others address their criticism at the government, as they’ve lost hope in its ability to make a dent in the crisis. 

Take, for example, Republican House leader, John Boehner.  On the CBS Sunday morning program Face the Nation, Boehner stated bluntly that he has given up on the government’s ability to mitigate the crisis.  Boehner said that at the time of their initial approval he was skeptical that any of the federal housing initiatives would succeed.  He went on: “I’m even more skeptical today that there’s anything the government can do to resolve these problems.  Boehner’s skepticism, predictably, comes with a more optimistic caveat:

“Over the last couple years, Congress has really set up four programs to help with those mortgage problems,” Boehner told Harry Smith. “And unfortunately, none of those have worked. And all they’ve really done is dragged out the length of time for the market to clear the problems. Which is unfortunate.”

In addition to suggesting that the government programs have no chance of succeeding, Boehner simultaneously indicates that the market proffers the sole plausible solution to the crisis.  The Republican leader again presents the public with the ubiquitous dichotomy of market vs. government, whereby the two entities are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Contrast Boehner’s view with that of President Obama.  About a month ago, Obama delivered a speech hailed by many as the first comprehensive illustration of his policy vision for the nation.  While cautioning the nation about the increasing deficits, Obama outlined a boldly progressive stance, contending that in addition to utilizing the government to attain a collective set of liberties, like access to healthcare, public schools, and a strong military, “part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security.” Does affordable housing constitute a “basic measure of security?”

Here, we see the vivid juxtaposition of two visions of the government’s role in society articulated by two of the nation’s leading public figures.  Moreover, this blog has commented frequently on the government’s housing initiatives.  While St. Ambrose welcomes government programs, we have been clear in pointing out there failures. In our view, many such failures have regulatory in nature, suggesting the need for more government, not less.  Nevertheless, if the economy is rebounding, perhaps this revival in prosperity will trickle back to the housing market, triggering a growing demand, increased properties values, and prosperous communities.

So, we invite readers to comment: can the government fix the housing crisis?


Talking With the Experts: An Interview With Dr. Matthew Kachura

Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicatory Alliance Program Manager Matthew Kachura (Image Source: University of Baltimore)

Today, we Talk To St. Ambrose have posted our second interview of our “Talking with the Experts Series,” and we are honored to host Program Manager for the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance-Jacob france Institute, Dr. Matthew Kachura.  As many of you already know, Dr. Kachura is a hugely respected community member and activist on behalf of Baltimore City.  He is likewise a pre-eminent scholar in the areas of housing, community economic and workforce development, and other issues affecting urban communities.  Dr. Kachura recently conducted an innovative study examining the effects of foreclosure on Baltimore’s schoolchildren, which gained much deserved local and national attention, as it remains one of the only empirically-backed projects studying the residual, far-removed affects of the foreclosure crisis.  Dr. Kachura has also conducted influential research on the Baltimore Empowerment Zone, the earned income tax credit, and commuter issues, among many others.

Again, we are honored to host such an important and distinguished scholar and community member.  My interview with Professor Kachura is below.

Harsha Sekar: It was fascinating to read the results of Phase I of your study on the effects of foreclosures on Baltimore’s schoolchildren. For me, one of the study’s most salient implications concerned the interrelationship of social problems.  It appears that public policies that encourage affordable housing will not be effective without the implementation of a broader welfare state, as widespread access to decent housing seemingly cannot materialize without strong neighborhoods, schools, and access to healthcare.  Given the findings of your study, can policymakers effectively curtail the problem of inadequate housing without simultaneously addressing the needs of other, related social institutions?

Matthew Kachura: The short answer is no.  I believe that urban issues, whether it is affordable housing, high unemployment, social ills such as crime, or issues relating to education, are all interconnected and that policies that take into account this interdependency need to be created and implemented.  Trying to address one issue without recognizing that there are a host of other issues related to it will not lead to sustainable or long-term improvement.

HS: Following up on the last question, what are some of the other, less obvious residual effects of foreclosure that you have noticed in your work?

MK: I think a non-obvious issue is exactly what we set out to identify.  Little attention has been paid to the smallest victims of foreclosure – children.  It is not just that children are also victims of foreclosure, but that the increased mobility resulting from foreclosure can have lasting, long-term effects on their social and personal development and educational performance.  These negative impacts might not occur in the year following the foreclosure, but research has shown that missing days of school as a result of having to move can lead to an increased chance of a student dropping out of school, not completing their degree and in the long run earning less income.

HS: Your study also catalogues the disproportionate effect of foreclosures on minorities.  While many commentators have discussed this issue, few academic studies document this phenomenon with empirical data.  How has the foreclosure crisis functioned to reinforce systemic racism?

MK: We found several interesting findings as a result of this analysis, including the largest numbers of students who were affected by foreclosure in Baltimore City were African American.  This was not surprising though since two thirds of the residents of Baltimore City are African American.  There were two other important findings.  First, the share of Hispanic students impacted by foreclosure had been increasing to a point where the share of students impacted by foreclosure was the same as the total percentage of students attending the City public schools.  Second, we believe the share of white students impacted by foreclosure was not accurately counted, potentially being significantly undercounted.  According to American Community Survey data, nearly a quarter of the children in Baltimore City are white but only 8% of children that attend the City public schools are white.  This means that these students are attending other schools – most likely private schools – and were not included in the analysis.  Overall though, the fact that African American residents and their children were affected by foreclosures in such large numbers supports the facts that predatory lending policies and sub-prime loans were targeted to those persons who could least afford to lose their home.  The loss of the home, the primary vehicle to building wealth for many of these families, only perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty.

HS: At Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s recent Vacants to Values Summit, the market-drive notion of “Code Enforcement” was promulgated a means to reduce blight in the city, which would impose sheriff sales on properties that do not meet the city’s code.  How do you feel about this tactic, and what other policies do you advocate to incentivize property owners to invest in Baltimore’s underserved neighborhoods?

MK: I believe that the Mayor’s plan has merit and there have been a variety of other strategies taken in an effort to reduce blight and to turn vacant housing into occupied housing.  There are issues with using code enforcement including identifying and locating individuals to serve them with the necessary paperwork, issues relating to selling the properties at Sherriff sales, and then trying to turn them into occupied properties.  Many of these properties are so beyond being able to be lived in, they will require significant repairs and persons willing to take the time and expense in making the repairs before anyone can live in the property.

I also believe that there are already a number of policies that are making strides in having residents invest within Baltimore’s neighborhoods.  Among these are live where you work programs, which also encourages employment, Healthy Neighborhoods, and the Neighborhood Stabilization Tax Credit.  I also believe that the City’s use of data and its Housing Typology model supports the use of strategic investment – targeting neighborhoods with the types of interventions that are needed most within those neighborhoods instead of spreading resources too thinly across a variety of neighborhood types.  Most of all, I believe that residents living in Baltimore’s neighborhoods are the best means to encourage other residents to invest and live in Baltimore City.

HS: Much of your scholarly work examines economic development in urban areas.  How have established NGOs like St. Ambrose contributed to economic development and vibrancy in the Baltimore area over the past few decades?  What do you feel is the role of NGOs in stimulating economic activity relative to that of the city government and the private sector?

MK: NGOs are a critical component to the overall continued health, vitality, and improvement to Baltimore City and its neighborhoods.  NGOs have been recognized as an important partner in economic development strategies that cities, such as Baltimore City, rely on for their ability to produce results and make an impact.  With fiscal constraints and the need to provide the same if not improved services for a shrinking residential base, NGOs have become a more important partner that the City has embraced to push economic and workforce development.  NGOs typically can operate without the bureaucracy and red tape that government agencies have in place, making them, in many cases, more effective and efficient in creating job opportunities and in neighborhood vitality.

Take Back the Land: A Human Rights Approach to Housing

Image Source: Take Back the Land

This week, we take a divergence from the dense, policy-based reporting of the last several posts to focus on a small, little known social movement, the Take Back the Land Movement.  Take Back the Land, an intentionally designed social movement that emerged via the work of diligent community organizers, possesses one central theme: to elevate the issue of Housing as a Human Right.

On it’s face, it’s easy to conflate the Miami-based organization with the countless other housing non-profits throughout the country, whose work is often challenged by bureaucracy and whose funding is likewise handcuffed by strictly regulated government grants.  But Take Back the Land is different.  It’s a grass roots movement that advocates on behalf of the homeless, with the goal of housing longtime homeless individuals and families as well as folks who’ve been displaced during the foreclosure crisis.  And unlike the stereotypical “social movement,” which often encounter criticism for being “too much talk, not enough action,” Take Back the Land has succeeded in finding houses for displaced individuals through a creative yet simplistic technique: moving people into foreclosed properties.

It’s easy to wonder how this is accomplishable and why the movement is yet to come across serious issues with law enforcement. In an ABC News segment, Max Rameau, a spokesperson for the movement, offers a good reason: “this [foreclosed house] is a complete waste.  This is not benefitting anyone.  It’s not benefitting the bank, it’s not benefitting the community, it’s not benefiting the families.  There’s no reason this house is empty.” (Rameau also wrote a book about developing a homeless village in an effort to provide affordable housing for low-income people, “Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown”).   Furthermore, rather than face trouble with the law, the movement, at least in Miami, is gaining the police’s support.  ABC spoke with the city’s Chief of Police, who expressed a refusal to enforce eviction notices, stating, “what Social Good would be served by arresting this mother, taking her away from her children?”

The movement has gained traction in several parts of the country, and while it’s not officially a non-profit, it’s website indicates that it has networked with “Local Action Groups” in cities coast to coast, ranging from Atlanta to Madison to Portland to Rochester.  While not a policy-promoting organization, Take Back the Land’s approach mirrors a policy alternative discussed both in our blog as well as at Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s recent Vacant’s to Values summit, Code Enforcement.

The theory behind Code Enforcement involves heavily cracking down on delinquent property owners to ensure that they meet the city’s code; if they do not, the government, in one step, can turn the property back to the market, where it will be sold in a competitive auction.  The idea behind the notion is that it would give property owners a strong incentive to maintain their homes while redirecting properties to a better owner if they do not.  Similarly, by putting families back into vacant homes, Take Back the Land helps ensure that the homes are once again properly maintained and meeting code, keeping neighborhood property values up and benefitting the broader community.  Their residents pay utilities, giving added business to companies that provide these services.

There are thousands of foreclosed properties in Baltimore and millions in the nation, the effect of which, in addition to harming families, encumber neighborhoods and by extension, capital markets and economies.  Rather than high-minded policies, Take Back the Land provides a plainspoken way to mitigate this crisis, and rather than sitting back and spouting out ideas, they are acting. By doing so, they begin to make progress towards their stated objectives of encouraging the perception of housing as a human right, local control over housing, community-based leadership, and direct action campaigns.  To be sure, plenty of their operations are illegal. However, policymakers and activists alike can benefit from the organization’s can-do spirit and human rights oriented strategy.

Talking With the Experts: A Conversation with David Marcello

Professor David Marcello

Welcome to the second portion of yesterday’s interview with New Orleans housing expert David Marcello. In the following conversation, Professor Marcello discusses strategies to curtail blight and encourage racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods:

Harsha Sekar: Like New Orleans, Baltimore faces tremendous problems with urban blight.  There’s a commonly held (yet perhaps unfounded) belief that Charm City contains “more row homes than people.”  True or not, it’s undeniable that blight is a huge problem in Baltimore, and any casual observer driving through one of the city’s more under-resourced neighborhoods could pick up on this in a heartbeat.  What strategies to curtail urban blight have you advocated?  What has worked in New Orleans, and what has failed?

David Marcello: I’ve relentlessly recommended for years that the city employ one of the most conventional weapons in the municipal arsenal: code enforcement. Code Enforcement has been a core function of cities since the 1901 Tenement House Act in New York City. We’ve created an exemplary administrative process in Louisiana for health, housing, and environmental code enforcement hearings that can lead in extreme circumstances to a sheriff’s sale, moving blighted property away from a negligent owner and into the hands of a new, more responsible owner. That transition in ownership takes place in a competitive public auction that shifts the property from one private owner to another without the necessity of intervening public ownership.

This last feature of the recommended “code enforcement” strategy stands in stark contrast to the outcome of an expropriation process, which was for many years the favored strategy of our local redevelopment agency, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, or NORA. I never thought NORA’s strategy of using expropriation as a blight remediation tool had much chance of success. In a city with tens of thousands of blighted properties, expropriation is simply too expensive and too time consuming to get the job done. Even worse, at the end of an expropriation proceeding, you’ve put the blighted property into the hands of a governmental entity that’s then confronted with the challenge of doing something with the property. Far better, I believe, is to use code enforcement as an incentive for people to fix up their own property or, failing that, using sheriff’s sales to move ownership from one private party directly to another, taking intermediate governmental ownership out of the equation.

HS: Both New Orleans and Baltimore are intensely segregated cities, and, as you know, segregated housing has led to segregated neighborhoods, schools, and other public institutions, with devastating consequences for underprivileged, often ethnic minority urban residents.  Do you propose or advocate any ideas to alleviate the crippling reality of residential segregation in New Orleans and other urban areas?

DM: New Orleans certainly has its share of segregated housing problems, but it’s worth noting that this was not historically the way things were in New Orleans, where humble shotgun housing existed in close proximity to grand mansions, providing a mix of income and racial diversity with which other cities were unfamiliar. In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of our humble housing “gentrified” into middle and upper income housing, and that’s certainly fostered greater income and racial segregation of the city’s residents. We should look for ways to diminish that effect by subsidizing rental and rehabilitation programs aimed at putting more of the city’s resource-limited residents into those types of existing housing units.

Our older neighborhoods reflect the diversity of housing structures that were built over many decades or even centuries. We need to restore within those older neighborhoods the income and racial diversity that characterized them in an earlier era. New Orleans had many healthy neighborhoods of mixed-income housing long before that concept took flight in the late 20th Century.

HS: It seems like the hottest new trend in urban planning nowadays are so-called “Mixed-Income Communities,” which, from my understanding, usually emerge as the result of public-private partnerships.  Policy-makers believe that intentionally designed mixed-income neighborhoods are the key to preventing gang violence, blight, and drug abuse, some of the most palpable problems that plagued the public housing projects constructed in the fifties and sixties. New Orleans, Baltimore, and most other major cities have developed such communities and are likely in the process of contracting for more.  How have these developments fared in mitigating the aforementioned problems?  What do you think about this potential new paradigm of urban housing?

DM: I think it’s too early to tell how well or poorly the post-Katrina mixed-income housing developments will fare. We’ll probably see mixed results, with some properties maintaining a balance of mixed incomes while some others acquire a disproportionate share of low-income residents. Still others may be challenged to survive financially, and we’re likely to confront the problem of what to do with a failed multiunit apartment complex.

I don’t feel quite the same level of enthusiasm that some people do for the model of Government as producer of a utopian “City on a Hill.” Here in Louisiana, we’ve seen how badly-managed government programs like The Road Home can first raise and then bitterly disappoint expectations. So when I hear references to “intentionally designed” neighborhoods, I tend to think, “Nice idea for new towns or beachside communities; maybe not so great for New Orleans?” At a charrette held two months after Katrina, I said, “I’d rather see people given some latitude to build back properties on their own initiative, even if it means that some of those properties turn out to be ugly, rather than inflict on this unique city some cookie-cutter pastel-colored vision of ‘our town’.” I still feel that way. What makes New Orleans New Orleans is the rich diversity of its neighborhoods. That’s true not only of its housing stock but also of the diverse cultures nurtured within those neighborhoods.

I would prefer to see Incentives built into the zoning ordinance and housing finance programs that empower individuals to make their own decisions about how to build back New Orleans. I trust this process of “accretion” more than I trust one agency’s single-minded vision of “intentionally redesigned” neighborhoods. We’ll keep our city’s cultural and architectural diversity intact by keeping our diverse residents fully engaged in the rebuilding process.

BNIA Study’s of Effect of Foreclosures on Baltimore Schoolchildren


Image Source: Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance

In the past week, the University of Baltimore’s Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicator Alliance (BNIA) released an analysis, possibly the first since the onset of the foreclosure crisis, that examines the effects of the foreclosures on children in Baltimore.  I first came across the study by way of Jamie Smith Hopkins’ excellent “Real Estate Wonk” blog, where Ms. Hopkins provides an enlightening commentary on the study and its implications.

University of Baltimore Professor Matthew Kachura conducted the study; he received ample funding from various arms of the Open Society Institute.  The study is premised on the notion that while the foreclosure crisis has prompted much examination of related matters, like the impact on property values and the housing market, little if any research exists on the foreclosure crisis’s impact on schoolchildren.  From there, Kachura’s study proceeds to dissect itself into two phases: phase one identifies the students affected by foreclosure and delineates a broad set of demographic characteristics, while the second phase, which is yet to be published, will look at the school performance of the affected students.  The published phase exhaustively utilizes hard data, including publically available foreclosure statistics and other metrics provided by the Baltimore Public Schools; the second phase will look at test scores.

While one cannot make assumptions about the negative impact that foreclosures will have on students’ performances just yet, Ms. Hopkins, on her blog, points out that a University of Baltimore press release has stated that affected students “may have to switch schools, move in with relatives, or leave the city altogether,” shedding light on the outcomes of the second phase of the study.

Kachura’s study proffers further evidence for the interrelationship between housing policies and systemic racism and poverty.  In a previous post, my colleague Will Flagle covered the recent Brandeis University study on the enormous impact that possessing equity in a home has had on intergenerational wealth over the past several decades, which, it turns out, has greatly contributed to inequality between African-Americans and White Americans nowadays.  Here, Kachura documents the disproportionate impact that foreclosures in Baltimore have had on minorities, conveyed in the graphs below:

Perhaps most insightful, Kachura’s data, coupled with that of the Brandeis study and others, gives us a clearer indication of the less salient, less tangible meaning of these foreclosures.  Minorities disproportionately are victims of foreclosure in part because, for systemic reasons, they have access to less capital and family wealth, in part because they are frequently targeted with predatory, non-prime loans, and in part because by and large they do not benefit from the sort of white privilege that would enable one to walk away from a million dollar mortgage and face hardly any repercussions.  As Barbara Eirenreich and others have pointed out, while the foreclosure crisis translates to a recession for some, in the African-American community it has meant a depression.  Kachura’s research suggests that because of foreclosures, minority children will face educational setbacks, and in turn lower college matriculation rates, access to decent jobs, affordable housing, and respect.  In short, the foreclosure crisis, as silly as it may sound, is reinforcing systemic racism, weakening the resources of minorities, and curtailing the rise of diverse neighborhoods and communities.

Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

Part three of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

Given the benefits of framing housing as a human right [discussed here], could such a right possibly be established?

Historically, the United States has been resistant to recognizing social and economic rights, including the right to housing. The timing of the Federal Housing Administration’s establishment in 1934 and the passage of the 1937 Housing Act indicates that other rationales (e.g. humanitarian, functionalist, etc.) were at the heart of previous federal policy. Later, the Housing Act of 1949 established the explicit goal of “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” However, by framing the policy as a “goal,” instead of a right, humanitarian concerns were still paramount—even though the right to housing had been affirmed a year earlier in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Since 1948, the right to housing and other economic and social rights have been reaffirmed in numerous international instruments such as the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1965), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), and the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979). Of these, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) “contains the most legally significant foundation of the right to housing at the international level.”[1] However, on the domestic front, the ICESCR—like many international documents—was only signed by the United States (by President Carter), and not ratified by the Senate. Therefore, it is not legally binding.

However, this does not mean that international law has no relevance to current domestic efforts to establish a right to housing. As a signatory to instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the United States still has legal obligations. Even thought the Covenant was only signed—not ratified—the US is still required by the Vienna Convention to “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of [the] treaty.”[2] In other words, the US has negative obligations. Such obligations have relevance to many housing issues, such as refraining from implementing laws that criminalize homelessness.

Moreover, as Maria Foscarinis, et al. have written, “Courts use international human rights law as an interpretive guide, to give content to general concepts such as standards of need and due process, and in further support of analyses under domestic law.”[3] For example, federal district courts and state courts of appeal have drawn upon international law in such cases as In Re White, Boehm v. Superior Court, and Lareau v. Manson. Even the US Supreme Court has brought “international norms and practices” to bear on US law “as evidenced by Roper v. Simmons, the case striking down the execution of minors as unconstitutional.”[4]

The interdependence of rights also provides a channel for legal advocacy. Foscarinis, et al., write that:

Jurisprudence emanating from the […] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [which was ratified by the United States] recognizes obligations under the right to life in Article 6, as well as under guarantees of non-discrimination, to take positive measures to address poverty and homelessness.  While the latter treaty is not self-executing, it can be used as an interpretive guide in cases where domestic law is absent or ambiguous; it may also be considered customary law and thus binding with the status of federal common law.[5]

Implicit within this statement is the interdependence of rights. In the quote above, the right to life and guarantees of non-discrimination are directly related to issues of poverty and homelessness. One’s right to life, for example, is not secure if one lacks adequate shelter. And guarantees of non-discrimination are potentially violated if certain groups are disproportionately affected by a lack of housing that, in turn, undermines other rights that they hold. Thus, due to the interdependence of human rights, the US’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights also entails government obligations relating to social and economic rights, including housing rights.

Finally, there is movement to establish housing as a human right at both the state and local level. A number of state constitutions, for example, “contain the seeds of a right to housing,” by including language that addresses caring for the needy, providing for the poor, or protecting citizen welfare.[6] As an example of human rights advocacy at the local level, “city councils in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco have passed resolutions adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.”[7]

Thus, there are many possible ways that international human rights norms, established in instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can be brought to bear on domestic legislation. The US’s negative obligations established under the Vienna Convention, the use of international law as an interpretive guide, the interdependence of rights, and legal advocacy at both the state and local level all provide avenues for realizing housing as a human right.


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


[1] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maria Foscarinis, et all. “The Human Right to Housing: Making the Case in U.S. Advocacy,” in the Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. July-August, 2004.

[4] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

[5] Maria Foscarinis, et all. “The Human Right to Housing: Making the Case in U.S. Advocacy,” in the Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. July-August, 2004.

[6] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

[7] Ibid.

Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

Part two of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

Discourse on economic and social injustice is changing. Now, when advocates and activists discuss pressing human needs or policy goals, their arguments are increasingly couched within a human rights framework. In the last few decades, this shift has become increasingly apparent within the movement to establish housing as a human right.

As Scott Leckie—the former Executive Director of the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions—has explained, there are many possible justifications for addressing housing issues: humanitarian, functionalist, social control-based arguments, and human rights-based arguments.[1] Given these possible justifications, why take a rights-based approach to housing issues? Why frame housing as a right that everyone is entitled to by the fact of their basic human dignity?

A number of legal and non-legal rationales support a rights-based approach. On the legal side, Leckie points out that such an approach establishes explicit and “legally binding obligations” for state actors and “enforceable entitlements” for citizens.[2] As a consequence, a rights-based approach would provide legal accountability. Once rights are established, governing institutions can be held accountable for meeting basic requirements. For example, the core components of  “adequate” housing—as defined by international law—include:  security of tenure, availability of services, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location, and cultural adequacy. These components provide a substantive benchmark for assessing the state of housing and maintaining accountability.

That said, a human rights-based approach does not have to be a purely legal approach. Leckie advocates social action that combines legal and political strategies.  With the support of a strong foundation based on human rights, “Public criticism, international embarrassment, complaints from other states, moves by opposition politicians, [and] criticisms in national and international media […] may yield more positive results than resorting to the courts,” writes Leckie.[3]

Moreover, such a rights-based approach to housing provides a new conceptual framework for understanding housing problems—one that differs from traditional humanitarian rationales. For Leckie, taking a rights-based approach “is not simply saying, ‘The government didn’t perform well so we are going to vote it out so that more people get housing.’ The rights based approach says, ‘The government has consciously done certain things or not done certain things and as a result of that it has violated the rights of its citizens.’”[4] By grounding the discussion in human rights, the problem is framed completely differently: a state that fails to meet a policy goal is very different from a state that violates the basic human dignity of its citizens.

Maria Foscarinis—the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty—has also stressed the value of a human rights framework for addressing housing issues. For Foscarinis, a rights-based approach is particularly important now

when so much public debate on these issues—and resulting policy and law—about homelessness and poor people is premised on misguided, hostile, and divisive assumptions. Human rights are universal: they recognize and are based on the inherent dignity and value of all human beings.  The human rights framework can help foster an inclusive, unifying model for a true social safety net based on justice.” [5]

Thus, establishing housing as a human right would not only hold governments accountable through both legal and political approaches, it would also help to reframe public debate on housing issues.


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


[1] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[2] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

[3] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

Housing as a Human Right

Part one of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

“In the US, it’s feasible to provide adequate housing for all. You have a lot of money, a lot of dollars available. You have a lot of expertise. This is a perfect setting to really embrace housing as a human right”

— Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, recently ended her official fact-finding mission in the US. During her seven city tour—including Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and other cities—Rolnik met with public officials, NGO representatives, and people experiencing homelessness in order to understand the current state of housing in the US. Her preliminary findings, while not necessarily surprising, are certainly damning: “millions of people living in the US today are facing serious challenges in accessing affordable and adequate housing.”

As the introductory quote above indicates, a common theme throughout Rolnik’s mission was that adequate housing is a basic human right. In order to explore this theme more thoroughly, Talk to St. Ambrose will be hosting a series of posts dealing with the emerging housing rights movement.


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


For more information on the UN Housing Mission, click here.