The answer is yes according to UN Human Rights Council, Profesor Raquel Rolnik (http://www2.ohchr.org/... ). Professor Rolnik is the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. She just finished a major tour of the US. Her tour included New York city, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Wilkes-Barre, PA and the Native American reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
What is astounding is that she was prohibited (literally blocked) from visiting the US by President GW Bush for one whole year. There are only a few countries that have blocked UN special rapporteurs from entering their country (the US found itself in the company of Cuba, North Korea and Burma). Unlike Bush, President Obama has not only welcomed her visit, but has actually invited her. Thank you President Obama! Her comments were damning (these will be discussed below). She has submitted a verbal report to the State Department which has one month to respond to her comments. Her final written report to the UN human rights council will be submitted early next year.
According to the Guardian, Rolnik said administration officials were genuinely interested in what she might find, if not embracing of mission and the idea that everyone is entitled to a decent home. http://www.guardian.co.uk/...
One of the first meetings I had at the state department they clearly told me: here, adequate housing is not a human right," she said. "I was shocked when I realised that the US, and countries in Europe – England – as well, had a solid housing policy for many years that worked pretty well. That was dismantled and the situation became worse throughout the nineties. Then we had this financial crisis and a real crisis in housing. It's all tied together," she said. "But I didn't expect to see what I have seen. In some ways the situation is worse than I expected.
Professor Rolnik (professor of Urban Planning and Architecture from Brazil) was specifically examining the impact of the sub-prime mortgage crisis on the provision of adequate housing. She travelled these 7 places, talking to the homeless, those in danger of becoming homeless, those who were being foreclosed and government officials; she held town-halls in all of the places that she visited and all were widely attended.
Rolnik laid the blame for the housing crisis and the financial crisis square at the door of the conservative philosophy that dismantled the policy of providing adequate housing for those with lower incomes in favour of "the illusion" that home ownership is the answer for all. Not only did this lead to the destruction of coherent housing policies and protection for renters, it lead to the creation and accumulation of debt and the creation of the current housing crisis in the US.
Typically those who lose their homes initially move in with relatives who are themselves barely able to subsist while looking for housing. Insufficient welfare payments often do not meet the costs of rents. Rents have been rising due to loss of protections for renters, lack of housing since so many former rentals became cooperatives and condominiums during the property boom in urban areas, and often no limits to increased rents between old and new tenants, limited (if any negotiation) between tenants associations and landlords mean that rents can be increased without linkages to maintenance costs and to the cost of living. Moreover, limited (if any) savings, and low incomes (for those employed) mean that people cannot find afford deposits for rental properties in which to live. The rise in homelessness especially in urban areas has increased tremendously. According to the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/...):
The US government does not tally the numbers but interested organisations say that more than 3 million people were homeless at some point over the past year. The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is families with children, often single parents. On any given night in Los Angeles, about 17,000 parents and children are homeless. Most will be found a place in a shelter but many single men and women are forced to sleep on the streets.
According to Professor Rolnik:
"Part of the financial crisis has to do with these housing policy options because one of the main ideas of this policy is to promote home ownership to those who never got access to property. People who never had credit finally had banks provide them credit and they can buy a home. But it didn't work for the poor. [...] So now we have a new face of homelessness – people who had homes, were not living in public housing, were not living in assisted housing, but now are in a position of asking for assistance because they're homeless. But the public housing has been destroyed," she said."
Rolnik’s comments leave us with some unpalatable facts. According to the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/...), Rolnik
- "[...] has accused the American government of pouring billions of dollars into rescuing banks and big business while treating as "invisible" a deepening homeless crisis."
- She also said that it is "shameful that a country as wealthy as the US was not spending more money on lifting its citizens out of homelessness and substandard, overcrowded housing."
- "The housing crisis is invisible for many in the US," she said. "I learned through this visit that real affordable housing and poverty is something that hasn't been dealt with as an issue. Even if we talk about the financial crisis and government stepping in in order to promote economic recovery, there is no such help for the homeless."
- "I think those who are suffering the most in this whole situation are the very poor, the low-income population. The burden is disproportionately on them and it's of course disproportionately on African-Americans, on Latinos and immigrant communities, and on Native Americans."
While she saw very difficult conditions in every place that she visited, the worst situation was that on the Native American reservation in Pine Ridge South Dakota:
You see total hopelessness, despair, very bad conditions. Nothing I have seen in other cities compared to the physical condition of the housing at Pine Ridge. Nothing compared to the overcrowding. They're not visible, they're isolated, they're far away. They're just lost," she said.
According to Haider Rizvi (http://www.humanrights-geneva.info/...):
By some estimates, up to 60 percent of the homes on Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with black mold. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, homes on the reservation are "overcrowded and scarce".
Despite the fact that Lakota people are indigenous to the land, many families in Pine Ridge are forced to live in tents or cars. About 26 percent of the housing units are mobile homes.
Activists say over 33 percent of the reservation homes lack basic water, sewage systems, and electricity. There is an average of 17 people living in each family home.
In a study released in 2006, the Tribal Council estimated the need for at least 4,000 new homes to address the homeless problem.
The deepest shame is that the US is such a wealthy country, they actually have the resources to provide adequate housing for everyone and yet it has not embraced the idea that housing is a human right:
"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," she said."
Is adequate housing an human right? I think so. Provision of housing for the poor was a strong component of the welfare state. I am certain that people remember the idea of public housing. The current policy has yielded a situation of rising homelessness, an insufficient number of housing units, insufficient payments to actually ensure access to available housing units. A couple of days ago, someone asked me what was needed on the President’s council of economic advisers and I said we needed planners, perhaps I should have been more specific, what we need is urban and regional planners, specifically we need a complete re-think on housing provision. This housing crisis will only continue to spread if we do not begin to challenge the idea that adequate housing is a privilege rather than a right.