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RIGHTS: U.S. Criticised over Soaring Housing Costs

Armin Rosen

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 5 2010 (IPS) - On Friday, the richest and most powerful country on earth was the subject of a damning report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The United States rarely finds itself brought before HRC, and issues of U.S. domestic policy seldom make their way into official U.N. proceedings.

But Raquel Rolnik, a Brazilian architect and urban planner and the HRC’s special rapporteur on adequate housing, found that U.S. housing practices were not in keeping with the agreed international framework on human rights.

During a visit to the U.S. this past September, she found that affordable housing was threatened by lending practices, reductions in public housing availability and the lack of a safety-net for poor families whose incomes are all but devoured by exploding housing costs.

Her report also highlights homelessness in the United States, and looks at how the demolition of public housing units, housing foreclosure and exploitative “subprime” lending practices combined to create an “affordable housing crisis” in the U.S.

She found a 33 percent increase in families “facing serious problems finding affordable housing” between 2000 and 2003, according to a press release from COHRE, a Geneva-based housing rights NGO.

According to Eric Tars of the Washington, DC-based National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty, Rolnik visited the United States at the invitation of the Barack Obama administration.

The NLCHP had been trying to get the previous rapporteur on adequate housing to make an official visit to the United States during the early 2000s; that rapporteur applied to the U.S. State Department for an official invitation but did not get one until the final month of the George W. Bush administration.

“They gave him the end-around,” says Tars, who said that the administration “never came around” to the idea of an official U.N. rapporteur investigating housing practices in the U.S.

The new rapporteur finally got that official invitation in 2009, and toured the United States with the cooperation of U.S.-based NGOs, including the NLCHP, and the State Department itself.

Raquel visited major cities such as New York and New Orleans, as well as impoverished Native American reservations. She held town hall meetings in each city she visited, and heard testimony from people whose housing had been either threatened or taken away during the global financial crisis.

Tars said that his organisation’s work helped expose the need for a rapporteur to visit the U.S.

“If you see the conditions that people are living in, we visited people who are living in abandoned housing in New Orleans where there’s no running water, no electricity, windows broken open, and insects coming in and out,” he says. “It’s not much better than what you’ll see in many less developed countries.”

Yet the HRC had shown an interest in housing practices in the developed world even before Raquel was even given official clearance for her investigation.

In 2008, a different special rapportuer looked at housing in Vancouver in advance of that city’s hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympics, while a 2006 report criticised the Australian government for lacking a “clear, consistent long-term and holistic housing strategy.”

The HRC has sent rapporteurs to a few of the richest countries on earth, a fact which led the Washington Times editorial board to speak out against Rolnik’s visit.

“Miss Rolnik’s bureaucratic pity might be better targeted at her native Brazil, where 28.9 percent of the urban population lives in slums, according to the UN-HABITAT Global Urban Indicators database,” wrote the paper’s right-leaning editorial board this past November, during Rolnik’s visit.

“Or China, where the rate is 32.8 percent. Or Kenya at 54.8 percent, Mozambique at 79.5 percent, or Sierra Leone, where 97 percent of people in cities are slum dwellers,” the paper said.

The basis for the HRC investigating developed nations comes from Article 11 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, whose signatories “recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

The Covenant says that its signatories accept the idea that adequate housing is a human right, and are committed to working towards that goal. The rapporteur looks at a country’s housing practices in terms of the Covenant’s principles, which means they work off of the assumption that adequate housing is a human right.

But Joshua Muravchick, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Foreign Policy Institute and the author a book on U.N. reform, says that this assumption exposes the problems with the entire idea of appointing a rapportuer on housing in the United States.

“The term ‘right’ or ‘rights’ has a very special meaning,” says Muravhick. “It is not a synonym for a desideratum or for something that is good or desirable or would be nice to have.”

He explains that investigations like Raquel’s reinforce the idea that human rights are an articulation of what people would like to have, such as a certain standard of housing – rather than a means of defending people from attacks on their lives and freedoms.

“The only cost” to Raquel’s report, he says, is that “it contributes to making a mockery of human rights and contributes to a disrespect for human rights.” He argued that a report on housing in the U.S. is “a joke” while there still is a “significant number of governments in the world today which are engaged in wholesale slaughter of their citizens.”

While Muravchick believes that the report reinforces a dangerously distorted view on human rights, Tars hopes that it will advance the discussion of human rights in the United States.

He notes that Raquel’s report will be part of the HRC’s review of the state of human rights in the U.S. this coming year, as part of the Council’s four-year review of every country on earth. He says that both the report and the review will force U.S. officials to take a substantive look at the U.S.’s attitude towards housing.

On a more fundamental level, Tars says that political rights are hardly threatened by the perception of quality of life as a human right. He thinks that the two can actually reinforce each other.

“What good is the right to vote,” he said, “if you don’t have a roof over your head?”

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