No Place Like Home: The U.N. on America’s Housing System

By Michelle Chen Mar 06, 2010

Housing is a human right. That’s not a phrase you hear often in our political discourse, even though the foreclosure crisis and recession have made shelter an increasingly precarious resource for millions across the country. On the most basic level, is it that unreasonable to think human beings have a right to a roof over their heads? From a philosophical angle, what does it mean for an individual, family, or group not to have a place to call home, and how does that kind of physical insecurity affect a community’s ability to thrive? An international perspective might help us square the hierarchy of needs. A United Nations Human Rights Council report on the U.S. housing system articulates the bleak realization now dawning on a divided America: there aren’t enough affordable homes for everyone, and depending on your racial, ethnic or economic background, your right to shelter is rapidly crumbling down. The report, presented by Special Rapporteur on housing Raquel Rolnik, identifies key housing injustices: institutionalized discrimination, poverty, a freewheeling real estate market, the bias of policymakers who fail to see the link between homelessness and building sustainable homes. While largely based on a recent tour of six cities, the study traces the history of postwar housing segregation, from the warehousing of poor Black families in rental tracts to the redlining of suburbia into a white-only zone. Today, unmet needs continue to blight the housing landscape:

In past years there were significant cuts in low-income housing assistance programmes. Budget cuts in the 1980s resulted in the gradual erosion and poor maintenance of the public housing system. Further subsequent funding cuts have also significantly affected the preservation of public housing. By the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of public housing units had become dilapidated. Over the past decade there has been a net loss of approximately 170,000 public housing units due to deterioration and decay, and much of the current public housing stock needs substantial repairs and rehabilitation. However, annual funding for public housing fell by 25 per cent between 1999 and 2006. When federal funding is inadequate, housing agencies reduce their own expenses. Measures have included shifting units to tenants with higher incomes (who can be charged higher rents than lower-income households but typically have less need for assistance), or cutting back in areas such as security or maintenance.

The study also notes that the Section 8 housing voucher program, despite purporting to offer residents "choice" in the housing market, is so limited that it serves only a portion of eligible low-income families, while the supply of affordable public housing evaporates. Other problems are ingrained in the architecture of exclusion:

The link between housing and health was stressed to the Special Rapporteur throughout her visit. Poor housing conditions expose residents — especially children — to a number of diseases. Most residents of public housing with whom the Special Rapporteur spoke complained of asthma, attributed to mould from poor maintenance of units. A resident in Los Angeles described living in slum housing conditions with rats, cockroaches, bedbugs, deteriorated piping and lead-based paint, and as a result developing chronic asthma…. During the mission, the Special Rapporteur observed many families living in subsidized housing units in conditions of severe overcrowding. This was particularly the case amongst immigrant families in Los Angeles, and most strikingly on Pine Ridge Native American Reservation, where it was described as commonplace to have three to four families living in a three-bedroom house. The conditions in the houses on the reservation were the worst seen by the Special Rapporteur during her mission, evidence of the urgent and severe need for additional subsidized housing units there.

Housing inequality–exacerbated by the subprime crisis and its disproportionate impact communities of color–has a ripple effect on other human rights to educational and economic opportunity:

The 2008 concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the report of the United States expressed deep concern that minority groups are disproportionately concentrated in poor areas characterized by substandard housing conditions. The Committee’s recommendations on this issue are firmly supported by the Special Rapporteur. The Committee also stated its concern regarding the de facto racial segregation in United States public schools. In many communities this issue is directly linked to housing, as some public school districts are funded by the property taxes of the local community, thus providing more resources to schools in wealthier neighbourhoods.

And those with no homes at all reflect the worst forms of discrimination, a racially polarized and stigmatized population that is systematically undercounted. Despite some movement toward more equitable treatment, policymakers continue to criminalize the homeless and needlessly break apart families.

More than 1.5 million children in the United States experience homelessness each year. In many cases, there are no adequate shelter facilities where parents and children can stay together and children are often removed from their parents and placed in foster care. The Family Unification Program (FUP) which aims to prevent this practice urgently needs more funds. A positive step is the resolution introduced in June 2009 by Congresswoman Maxine Waters in the House of Representatives on the right of children to adequate housing (H. Res. 582). While not yet adopted by Congress, this resolution recognizes the right of children and youth to adequate housing and states that projects that provide services to parents and other caretakers to prevent possible homelessness of youth in crisis should be created and maintained.

The report offers various recommendations for improving housing stock and developing more sustainable housing and home lending policies–such as the elimination of housing barriers facing formerly incarcerated people. One of the last suggestions is more open-ended:

Residents of public housing should have direct, active and effective participation in the planning and decision-making process affecting their access to housing. Residents should be seen as essential partners working alongside the Government in transforming public housing.

This idea embodies the core of housing as a right rather than a privilege. Underserved communities have for decades been forced to accept the policies handed down by bureaucrats who claim to know best where and how the poor should live. To make housing a truly responsive and equitable system, it requires a political framework that respects residents as central stakeholders, entitled not only to a place to call home, but to the power and responsibility of real ownership. Image: Picture the Homeless