In an earlier post, Eric shared his rising hope that the idea that housing is a human right may be gaining some traction among key government officials. Today, I’m feeling it too.

I just got back from hearing a keynote address by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at the Housing Justice network conference. It felt like a breath of fresh air—and that’s not just because it’s a beautiful spring-like day in DC. It’s because this Secretary believes and says that housing is a human right! Barbara Sard, formerly of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and currently special advisor for rental housing at HUD, introduced the Secretary and told this anecdote: A group of activists came to meet with the Secretary and asked him whether he believed that housing is a human right. To their surprise, he said, simply and unequivocally, “Yes.”

Obviously,  saying the words is not enough. But it was refreshing to hear and the right place to start. And I’m giving us some credit for this since the Law Center raised this specifically with him when we met one-on-one. He was interested in thinking about housing through a human rights framework and asked for more information, which we happily sent. Shaun Donovan was my intern many (too many!) years ago, and I know he’s committed to and knowledgeable about homelessness and low-income housing. He’ll need to back up his words with action, and we’ll be holding him accountable.

Still, the words were nice to hear.

-Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director


This morning the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, presented her report on the U.S. to the UN Human Rights Council.  Douglas M. Griffiths, Deputy Permanent Representative of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations made our government’s formal response, continuing a legalistic avoidance of our human rights commitments, rather than fulfilling Obama’s pledge to “lead by example.”  Rep. Griffiths stated, “While the U.S. has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, we have made a political commitment to a human right related to housing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Although US law does not treat adequate housing as a legally enforceable right, our law does provide certain legally enforceable rights and protections related to housing such as anti-discrimination requirements and provision of adequate housing to persons in government custody.”

How long can the government continue to hold this awkward position?  The “human right related to housing in the UDHR” is the right to adequate housing – why not call it such? And if we have made a “political commitment” to that right, but “U.S. law does not treat adequate housing as a legally enforceable right,” then how are we possibly fulfilling our commitment?  And if the government is going to cite its provision of a right to “adequate housing to persons in government custody,” I think there’s a lot of people doubled and tripled up in jail cells and immigrant detention centers across the country who would dispute that is being provided.

If, as Mr. Griffiths concluded, “we look forward to engaging with the Special Rapporteur on questions like this as we continue to explore how to improve housing in the US and contribute to a global conversation to address significant problems such as homelessness,” a good place to start would be to make a clean break with the past and simply declare our unqualified, unparsed, unavoidable commitment to the human right to housing.

-Eric Tars,  Human Rights Program Director

Friday marked another small step for activists in the long term movement to have a real dialogue about the human right to housing in the U.S.  Despite blizzard conditions, over 80 people came and participated at the New York City UPR listening session (see previous post for discussion of process), with high-ranking government representatives.

One of the most compelling moments of the day was when Arthur Wood offered his testimony of his forced eviction from his home and studio in New York, the Broken Angel, with the ashes of his recently deceased wife being held by his son next to him.  She had passed away in large part due to the stress of their eviction. It brought into sharp focus how the right to housing for many is literally a matter of life and death. Many others offered similarly personal and touching testimonies.

And, as I said in my testimony, although President Obama has said “it is unacceptable for families and children to be homeless in a country as wealthy as ours,” the testimonies and the statistics make it clear we do accept this every day.  And members from the State Department delegation continued to express the Bush-era mantra that the U.S. is already in complete compliance with all its U.N. treaty obligations, and economic and social rights were covered only as a courtesy.

Clearly there is more work to be done, and there’s plenty more I could critique about the process for developing the consultation.  But Jennifer Jones, Advisor to the Assistant Secretary in the Office of Public and Indian Housing at HUD, said that the Obama Administration acknowledges it is not doing everything it could to ensure the right to housing, and also that HUD Secretary Donovan believes housing is a human right and shares that mission with all in the agency.  That frank acknowledgment, and that spirit of engagement within human rights frame are an important base upon which to build a new conversation around housing rights. So I’ll try to leave with that note of optimism, and at a minimum consider us one small step closer to the right to housing.

-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director

Looks like we’re not the only ones blogging about housing rights and the UPR!

Check out this New York Times blog posting.

Today the Law Center is excited to be a part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) consultation in New York City.

The UPR holds UN member countries accountable to human rights standards by requiring that all members submit reports to the Human Rights Council every four years.  This is the United States’ first review since the UPR was created in 2006. As a part of the review, the U.S. government is required to consult with civil society.

About 80 people*  are in attendance for presentations by advocates highlighting human rights issues related to housing, employment and labor, education, health and criminal justice. Representatives from the State, Housing & Urban Development, and Justice Departments among others, are present.

Of course, we’re highlighting housing rights. The Law Center is a co-sponsor of the consultation, and we assembled the panel on housing rights. Click here to read the testimony presented this morning by Human Rights Program Director Eric Tars.

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the consultation through our live feed. Check us out at @NLCHPhomeless.

You can also see photos from the consultation here.

Stay tuned for more!

*More than 120 RSVP’d, but snow prevented some from getting to the site of the consultation.

Last Friday, senior members of five government agencies held a meeting with about 2 dozen domestic human rights organizations to gather their input as part of the government’s preparation to submit its report for the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on how the U.S. is meeting its human rights obligations.  Just one of hundreds of meetings of advocates and government officials that happen every day in Washington, DC.  But as I rode the train home from the UPR consultation, I really started to think about this meeting and what it meant to me personally.

For the past six years, since I graduated from law school, one of my main professional goals has been to generate a real domestic human rights dialogue in this country using these UN human rights treaty processes and mechanisms as a point for beginning the conversation.  For five of those years, under the Bush Administration, we met with officials in the State Department who were responsible for dealing with these human rights treaties. But as domestic advocates, we knew that the State Department wasn’t who we really needed to talk to – it was HUD, or the DOJ, or the Education Department – the agencies who make policy that affects the people whose rights we work to protect.  We demanded that these agencies be brought into the process, not just for the State Department to gather information from, but for State to send the recommendations of the human rights monitoring bodies to, so they could implement them.  And we demanded that these agencies be brought into a conversation with advocates so we could talk directly to them about their human rights obligations.For five years, we made incremental progress, but not much in terms of tangible change.  This was tremendously frustrating, but as advocates, we knew that we couldn’t give up.  And even though we couldn’t see it immediately, our message that we were serious and weren’t going away was sinking in, especially with career staff in the State Dept.

At this meeting on Friday, and in the meetings that have happened in New Orleans and Chicago, and are scheduled in NYC, Albuquerque, Dearborn, Birmingham, and San Francisco, we have finally begun to get what we’ve been asking for.  We have seen several meetings with senior governmental staff, not just in State, but in Justice, Education, Labor, Housing & Urban Development, Homeland Security, OMB, etc., where domestic government agencies have engaged in a dialogue based on the assumption that they do have human rights obligations, and that they may have to do something to address them.

I know that dialogue is just dialogue – it’s still a far way from policy change and even further from change on the ground.  And to date, many of the recommendations of these human rights bodies – for a stop to the demolitions of public housing, for one-for-one replacement of subsidized housing units, for a concrete plan and actions to remedy the disparate racial impact of homelessness on African Americans – have not happened, even under the Obama Administration.  But I do think this is the beginning of the conversation we’ve been asking for; at least now there are people in these agencies who will know what we’re talking about when we talk about their human rights obligations.

After a while of wondering if what we’re doing is making a difference, I’ve got hope again that we’re beginning to see a fundamental shift in the effectiveness of our advocacy as human rights advocates.  And that’s something worth celebrating even on a grey, snowy day.

-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director