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.

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.

Common Myths about Housing Rights

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

From the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions:

Myth: The courts cannot protect housing rights
This is one of the most common myths propagated about the right to housing and other economic and social rights. The notion that housing rights are non-justiciable is usually based on a comparison with civil and political rights. Proponents of this myth believe, among other things, that unlike civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to housing, are too vague and too cost-intensive (requiring government action rather than inaction) to be litigated, and can only be implemented in a piecemeal fashion on the basis of policy, but not on law and justice.

Reality: Not only is the right to housing one of the most developed economic, social and cultural rights in terms of content, but a number of the constituent elements of the right to housing are adjudicated in courts of law, tribunals and other legal and quasi-legal forums on a daily basis. For example, in many countries landlord-tenant relations are regulated by legislation and enforced in courts or tribunals; discrimination with respect to accommodation is prohibited in national human rights legislation in countries across the world and land claims are commonly brought before adjudicators. Moreover, almost all countries have passed legislation on various aspects of housing, much of which can be brought before the courts. Concurrently, regional and international human rights bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination have directly considered housing rights issues in their case law or jurisprudence. COHRE’s publication Litigating Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Achievements, Challenges and Strategies outlines a range of housing rights cases and litigation experiences and can be downloaded here.

General Comment No. 4 adopted by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, identifies six specific areas within the right to housing that are capable of judicial scrutiny: legal appeals aimed at preventing planned evictions through the issuance of injunctions; legal procedures seeking compensation following an illegal eviction; complaints against illegal actions carried out or supported by landlords in relation to rent levels, dwelling maintenance, and racial or other forms of discrimination; allegations of any form of discrimination in the allocation and availability of access to housing; complaints against landlords concerning unhealthy or inadequate housing conditions; and class action suits in situations involving significantly increased levels of homelessness.

Myth: The State must build housing free of charge
Opponents of housing rights have often argued that recognising housing rights would require governments to build housing for the entire population – an entirely State-based, State-determined and State-driven approach to housing. Presumably, this myth came about based on literal interpretations of the term “right to housing”, and the notion that if the right to housing is granted to all, individuals would demand housing from the State despite the limited resources of the State to meet such demands.

Reality: The right to housing has never been interpreted under international law to mean that States must provide housing, free of charge, to all who request it. Rather, under international law, once a State accepts the obligations attached to the right to housing, it agrees to endeavour, by all appropriate means possible, to ensure that everyone has access to housing resources adequate for health, well-being and security. Upon assuming legal obligations, States are required to undertake a series of measures which indicate policy and legislative recognition of each of the constituent aspects of the right to housing, thus creating the necessary conditions so that all residents may enjoy the full entitlements of the right to housing within the shortest possible time-frame. This is both reasonable and realistic. Although international law may not require States to provide housing for everyone who requests it, some countries have voluntarily taken on this responsibility. Legislation in Finland, for example, makes it mandatory for local government to provide housing resources for the severely handicapped under certain circumstances. In other contexts, homeless children in South Africa, homeless families in the United Kingdom, victims of natural disasters or others with acute housing needs in many countries do have rights to immediate housing relief. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also provided some insight into whether States have to construct housing for all upon demand. The Committee has indicated that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) requires States parties (that is, States which have ratified the ICESCR) to provide minimum subsistence rights for everyone regardless of the level of economic development of the country. This means that States parties must ensure, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights in the ICESCR, including the right to housing. Thus, a State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of basic shelter and housing would be failing to discharge its obligations under the ICESCR. In meeting their obligations under the ICESCR, States are required to give due priority to those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged and consequently least able to achieve the right to housing themselves. In other words, State parties should provide housing or access to housing resources to those people who are homeless, inadequately housed or incapable of acquiring the bundle of entitlements that correspond with housing rights.

Myth: The State must fulfill the right to housing immediately
Many States are fearful of the right to housing because they mistakenly believe that the right to housing requires them immediately implement all housing rights obligations to comply with international law, and that a failure to do so will lead them to be classified as human rights violators.

Reality: Of course, it would be ideal if States could fulfil all aspects of the right to housing immediately. International law has recognized the impracticality of this and has responded by interpreting this right to mean that States parties will have some legal obligations that must be undertaken immediately and others that are more long-term or progressive in nature. In other words, protecting and enforcing the right to housing will involve some immediate action and some future action, all of which will eventually lead to the full, society-wide, enjoyment of this right. The immediate action required by State parties to the ICESCR arises out of article 2(2) of the ICESCR which stipulates that States parties “undertake to take steps … by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures”. In its General Comment No 3, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has interpreted this phrase to mean that State parties are obliged to immediately begin to adopt measures towards the full enjoyment by everyone of the right to housing. While the full realization of the right to housing might be achieved progressively, steps toward the goal must be taken within a reasonably short time after the Covenant is ratified by the State. The means by which this must be accomplished include – but are by no means limited to – the adoption of legislation. The Covenant also recognizes that some aspects of the right to housing may not be capable of immediate realization. In turn, according to the Covenant, States are obliged to undertake to achieve progressively the full realization of the rights contained in the ICESCR. The use of the term “progressive realization” is a recognition that full realization of all economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to housing, will generally not be able to be achieved in a short period of time. This does not mean, however, that States can indefinitely defer efforts to ensure the enjoyment of the rights in the Covenant.

For more housing rights myths from COHRE, click here.

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Unfortunately, we cannot cover all the myths about housing rights in one post. However, I just wanted to include one final myth or controversy not mentioned above. That controversy is the incompatibility of positive and negative liberty.  The right to housing and other social, economic, and cultural rights (often referred to as positive liberties), are often pitted against civil and political rights (often referred to as negative liberties).

Read more about this controversy here, and share your thoughts with us!

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

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.