The wealthiest country in the world—the United States of America—is home to millions of people who lack adequate housing. Beyond the epidemic of homelessness, which affects an estimated 3.5 million Americans, some 1.35 million of whom are children, millions more live in poor housing conditions that often rival those found in developing countries. Although the human right to adequate housing is recognized in numerous international human rights instruments and scores of related policy documents and has long been regarded as essential to ensuring the well-being and dignity of all humans, a stark gap exists between these human rights principles and the current housing situation, as well as the view of housing rights, within the United States. This divide is all the more disturbing when one considers the enormous economic power and wealth of the United States, leading one to question the political decisions and priorities that have led to this situation.
Access to adequate housing directly affects other human rights. Without it, employment is difficult to secure and maintain, health is threatened, education is impeded, violence is more easily perpetrated, privacy is impaired, and social relationships are frequently strained. The lack of affordable housing especially places poor people in the impossible position of having to choose between the most basic of human necessities: housing or food, housing or health care, housing or clothing, and so on. While many people think that violations of housing rights only occur amidst the grinding poverty of the developing world, the truth is that we do not have to go far to witness the housing crisis in our own cities and towns.
Inadequate Housing Rights in America
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the average U.S. household must earn at least $15.37 per hour to afford an adequate two-bedroom rental unit and still meet basic subsistence needs. That figure represents a 5 percent increase since 2001. It is higher than any state minimum wage and more than double the federal minimum wage. The rising cost of housing is most problematic for those workers whose incomes are not likely to increase significantly over time. It especially affects women, who make up the majority of minimum wage workers and tend to be the sole wage earner in single-parent families. If that were not sobering enough, the NLIHC also reports that the housing voucher program known as Section 8, which helps 2 million low-income families access adequate housing, is under attack from the Bush administration, despite a long history of effectiveness and bipartisan support.
A study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (available at www.jchs.harvard.edu/publications/markets/Son2002.pdf) reports that
[t]he inexorable rise in home prices and rents represents a serious challenge for the nation’s 20 million lowest-income households. Although the plight of renters receives much attention, the vast majority of lowest-income owners also face severe housing affordability problems. Overall, some 8.6 million renters and 6.4 million owners in this group pay more than 30 percent of their limited incomes for housing and/or live in structurally inadequate or overcrowded homes.
Women, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, children, and the poor have been disproportionately affected by this lack of affordable housing and inadequate living conditions. They have also suffered discrimination in the housing sphere—especially African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Indeed, in 2000, the U.S. government admitted to the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that
[i]n its contemporary dimensions discrimination takes a variety of forms, some more subtle and elusive than others. Among the principal causative factors are . . . continued segregation and discrimination in housing, rental and sales of homes, public accommodation and consumer goods. Even where civil rights laws prohibit segregation and discrimination in these areas, such practices continue.
Housing and homeless advocates are convinced that the Bush administration is solidly opposed to increasing housing benefits for the poor and has been tightening its grip around public housing and other programs that help ensure that the poorest Americans have somewhere to sleep at night. Very few public housing units have been built in the past twenty years, and several federal housing programs are on the chopping block. According to the NLIHC, in FY 2006 alone the public housing capital fund, used for modernizing and rehabilitating public housing, will be cut by $252 million. The public housing operating fund, used for building maintenance, utilities, and resident services, will be cut by $25 million. The Resident Opportunities and Self Sufficiency Program, designed to link public housing residents with supportive services, resident empowerment activities, and other assistance, will be cut in half. Similar cuts in housing programs meant to assist the poor already have been seen across the board.
American Support for Housing Rights in the International Arena
Here at home the picture certainly seems bleak when it comes to housing rights. When it comes to the administration’s position on housing rights internationally, things are not much better. At this year’s UN Commission on Human Rights annual gathering in March and April in Geneva, the commission considered several resolutions on matters pertaining to economic, social, and cultural rights. The United States stood as the lone opposition to many of these resolutions. Regarding housing rights specifically, a statement delivered by Ms. Goli Ameri, a member of the U.S. delegation, clearly summed up the U.S. position: “The United States does not support the ‘right to adequate housing’ or ‘housing rights,’ because such a right does not exist.”
Despite Ameri’s insistence that housing rights are nonexistent, the right to adequate housing is enshrined in several international human rights instruments and has been enforced in courts of law around the world. Indeed, housing rights are not a new development within the human rights field but rather have long been regarded as essential to ensuring the well-being and dignity of humans. Housing rights are integral to the whole of human rights in general and have been included in the most authoritative international statements regarding human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for example, explicitly recognizes the right to adequate housing, as does the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). Housing rights are also enshrined and protected within the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1959), and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990).
The right to adequate housing has also been carefully defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comment No. 4. This is perhaps the most comprehensive international statement of law on the right to adequate housing to date, as it is meant to interpret and define the legal principles articulated in Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to adequate housing. Through this comment, the committee argues that the right to adequate housing should not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense that equates it with the shelter provided by merely having a roof over one’s head or with views defining shelter exclusively as a commodity. Rather, the committee notes that the right to adequate housing should be seen holistically, encompassing the right to live somewhere in security, peace, and dignity.
In its comment, the committee goes on to note that the concept of adequacy is particularly significant in relation to the right to housing since it serves to “underline a number of factors which must be taken into account in determining whether particular forms of shelter can be considered to constitute ‘adequate housing’ for the purposes of the Covenant [on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights].” In this regard, the committee identified and elaborated upon seven key criteria that comprise the right to adequate housing: legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; and cultural adequacy.
Several of these elements are clearly relevant in the United States, including affordability, accessibility, and habitability. Although the United States has not yet ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Both of these contain housing rights protections and forbid discrimination in the area of housing. Both set forth state obligations in this regard.
While we might not think that a treaty that protects civil and political rights can be used to enforce housing rights, it can. In 1999, the UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, expressed concern that homelessness in Canada had led to serious health problems and even to death. This committee recommended that the state take positive measures required by Article 6 of the covenant, which protects the right to life, to address this serious problem. Thus creative ways can indeed be found to use human rights language, as well as existing human rights legal obligations, to protect the housing rights of the most marginalized people in American society.
Making housing rights—as rights—resonate in the United States is certainly a work in progress. So too is the work to hold government actors accountable when housing rights are violated. Yet, as many organizations are learning, human rights frameworks and language can certainly strengthen the work of housing advocates and antihomelessness activists. We can, and should, make a transition in the way we think about housing in this country. We must join with the rest of the world and see not only housing needs but rather housing rights. As Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (available at www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Human%20Rights%20Resource%20Manual%20April%2025%202005.pdf) has recognized,
[p]lacing housing and other economic and social issues within a human rights framework can help reframe public debate on these issues. This is especially important now, when so much public discussion—and resulting policy and law—about homeless and poor people is premised on misguided, hostile and divisive assumptions. Human rights are universal: they recognize and are based on the inherent dignity and value of all human beings. They also recognize that rights and responsibilities are linked. The human rights framework can help foster an inclusive, unifying model for a true social safety net based on justice.
Stats: Rental Housing
- Number of households in the United States that rent homes or apartments: more than 36 million, or approximately a third of households
- National average amount that workers must earn to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment: $15.37 per hour; in the San Francisco area: $29.60 per hour
- Minimum wage in the United States: $5.15 per hour
- Number of counties in the United States where a person working full-time and earning the prevailing minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment: four (Crawford, Lawrence, and Wayne counties in Illinois and Washington County in Florida)
- Source: National Low Income Housing Coalition, available at www.nlihc.org/oor2004/introduction.htm
Mayra Gómez is the research and policy officer at the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). Bret Thiele is the coordinator of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Litigation Programme at the same organization. COHRE is an international organization headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. For further information, visit www.cohre.org.