A Movement Grows: The Human Right to Housing in America

Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Community Action Network

A right to housing? Sounds unAmerican! Sounds like socialism!

Well, actually, the right to housing is an American idea that’s been around for quite some time and that has found support in high places. Almost seven decades ago, in 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” that would go beyond existing constitutional provisions to guarantee Americans a right to social security, a right to an education, a right to health care, and a right to a home. These rights were necessary, President Roosevelt stated, so that Americans could truly pursue the “happiness” that the Declaration of Independence had promised.

A few years later in 1948, with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt taking the lead in the drafting process, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration builds on President Roosevelt’s vision to set out for every individual the basic human right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including . . . housing.” While not a binding treaty, the Universal Declaration has been recognized as a statement of customary international law that should have a central role in shaping the law of every nation in the world.

President Roosevelt felt that his Second Bill of Rights should be implemented through political processes rather than through judicial interpretation of existing constitutional provisions. Almost seventy years after he introduced the idea of a right to a home, those political processes continue, led by grassroots activists and their allies nationwide who are increasingly using the international human rights law as a tool to further their work.

For example, for the past two decades, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union has used human rights to organize in Philadelphia for access to habitable, affordable housing. Their work has ranged from marches on the United Nations to petitions before international tribunals. In the process, they have built an effective local advocacy group that has secured lifesaving results for many of its members. Following Kensington’s lead, the human rights framework has more recently been embraced by the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), which works with homeless and extremely low income people living in downtown Los Angeles.

In New Orleans, advocacy for a human right to housing has energized communities that suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The organization May Day New Orleans has led the fight against demolitions of public housing in New Orleans, arguing that preservation of stable communities is an important component of human dignity. The fundamental human right to a home has helped define and focus their struggle to preserve their homes or, when that is not possible because of hurricane damage, to receive assistance in finding other permanent housing that honors their strong ties to their communities.

Two organizations — the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) — serve as national support centers for this work. NLCHP’s lawyers use human rights law to further the agendas of their domestic clients, though litigation, advocacy and legislative drafting. For example, NLCHP has had successes working with activists in cities around the U.S. to ensure that the right to suitable housing is part of the mix as localities establish their long-term agendas and budgets. Similarly, NESRI uses a range of approaches, including law, policy analysis and communications, to work in partnership with grassroots organizations utilizing human rights norms to further their campaigns. NESRI’s work with May Day New Orleans has helped that group connect with other low income communities in Indonesia dealing with the aftermath of disaster (in their case, a tsunami). Both groups have drawn strength, inspiration and concrete ideas from learning about their place in the global struggle for adequate housing.

All of these U.S.-based groups came together in late 2009 during the official visit to the United States of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing. This special expert visited with the U.S. government’s permission to survey and report back to the United Nations concerning the state of housing in the U.S. A coordinated effort among housing advocacy groups took the Special Rapporteur from New York to Los Angeles, from New Orleans to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to see and hear first-hand about the dire housing issues facing Americans and particularly, given the absence of the right to suitable housing, the lack of domestic infrastructure for dealing with these issues. The Special Rapporteur’s report to the United Nations will provide an additional vehicle for activists to directly confront the U.S. government as well as state and local governments on their dismal records of supporting suitable housing for all.

This work has already had an impact on popular opinion. The New York-based Opportunity Agenda found in 2007 that more than half of respondents–51%–felt strongly that Americans have a right to housing. Two-thirds believe that adequate income to meet basic housing and food needs is a human right.

With numbers like these, it’s time to put aside the old red-baiting trope that a right to housing, like a right to health care, is a harbinger of socialist tendencies. The human right to housing is clearly an American idea – and an idea whose time has come.

Author: Martha Davis

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