On Friday, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik presented her final report on the state of housing rights in the U.S. to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. While there is no official right to housing under the U.S. Constitution, international human rights treaties and declarations recognize adequate housing as a basic human right. In her role as U.N. Special Rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik documents in the report the degree to which the U.S. government has met its obligation to ensure access to adequate housing for all people. The report summarizes her investigative findings and recommendations from her 18-day official visit to the U.S. last October and November and identifies the many housing rights violations people face, including the "persistent impact of discrimination in housing."
Rapporteur Rolnick's findings regarding housing discrimination references issues raised by the ACLU in the written and oral testimony we presented during her visit. Citing a fact sheet published by the Women's Rights Project (WRP), she notes in her report that current housing policies "negatively target victims of domestic abuse, as they do not take into account whether tenants who are subject to eviction are the victims or the perpetrators of criminal activity." WRP Staff Attorney Sandra Park testified at the National Town Hall Forum that the rapporteur held in Washington, D.C., in November 2009, and also submitted written testimony about discriminatory evictions of women who experience domestic violence, as part of WRP's ongoing work to advocate for the housing rights of survivors of gender-based violence. (Check out a photo slideshow from the town hall meeting.)
WRP's testimony also describes discriminatory public housing policies, byproducts of the War on Drugs, that tear families apart by criminalizing behavior and banning people from residing in, or even visiting other residents, in public housing. Annapolis public housing residents Glenda Smith and Esther Sharps, represented by WRP and the ACLU of Maryland in a lawsuit against the Annapolis housing authority, testified about the devastating impact of these banning policies on their families at the rapporteur's town hall meeting. Ms. Smith spoke about her granddaughter, who has been prohibited from living with or visiting her own son, who is in Ms. Smith's care, because she was placed on the Housing Authority's banned list after a juvenile arrest three years ago, for which she has long since served her sentence. "The banning policy is unfair because it is punishing [my granddaughter] beyond what the court decided her punishment should be; it is punishing our whole family." Rapporteur Rolnick addresses these issues in her report, expressing her concern about "the discriminatory nature of these practices towards the residents of public housing, and their negative, fragmenting effects on families."
In her report, Rapporteur Rolnick expresses "her deep concern about the millions of people living in the United States today who face serious challenges in accessing affordable and adequate housing, issues long faced by the poorest people and today affecting a greater proportion of society." The human right to adequate housing is a critical women's right, because women, especially low-income women of color, are amongst those most vulnerable to housing instability as a result of factors including poverty, domestic violence, and discrimination. In response to the report's release, Sandra Park said,
Confronting violence against women is crucial to addressing homelessness. The United States must prohibit housing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, effectively implement the Violence Against Women Act, and ensure that families escaping abuse have access to safe, permanent housing.
The rapporteur's report will inform the Human Rights Council's upcoming assessment of the U.S. government's record in meeting its human rights obligations. This marks an important step forward in addressing discriminatory housing practices in the U.S., and we hope that the government will take immediate measures to remedy these violations.
— Chelsea Zimmerman & Selene Kaye, Women's Rights Project