On Sunday November 8, 2009, Rachel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing completed an 18 day mission to the United States. Professor Rolnik met with officials and activists and saw first-hand the housing crisis in the District of Columbia, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Pacoima and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The mission concluded with a national town hall meeting at the Georgetown Law Center with testimony from experts, organizers and formerly homeless persons. My testimony on behalf of Legal Aid and the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel is available on the Legal Aid Policy Advocacy web page. More information on the Special Rapporteur’s mission can be found at the web page of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the blog Restore Housing Rights.
Before departing the United States to return home to Brazil, Professor Rolnik issued a press release previewing her finding, which will be contained in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. While she was encouraged by the efforts of the new administration, she raised serious concerns:
The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, warned at the end of her official visit to the United States of America that, “Millions of people in the U.S. are spending high percentages of their income to make their monthly rent and mortgage payment, face foreclosure or eviction, and live in overcrowded and substandard conditions.”
“The number of homeless continues to rise with increasing numbers of working families and individuals finding themselves on the streets,” highlighted the UN expert. . . “The economic crisis has exacerbated this situation.”
The U.S. has a longstanding and established history of commitment to decent, safe, and affordable housing, dating back to the National Housing Act of 1934, though certain groups such as minorities and Native Americans have not benefitted on an equal basis. Federal funding for low income housing has been cut over the past decades leading to decreased stock and quality of subsidized housing.
During this time, significant efforts have been taken to reshape the face of subsidized rental and public housing in the U.S., often demolishing public housing and promoting mixed income communities. “Though a good goal, implementation of mixed income developments in many cases leads to displacement, discriminatory practices and a reduction of the stock of affordable and adequate housing for low-income households,” stressed Ms. Rolnik.
The Special Rapporteur’s findings resonate with the experience in the District of Columbia. Throughout the 1990’s, the District lost 6% of its rental housing stock, largely from low-income neighborhoods. “Housing in the Nation’s Capital, 2002,” Fannie Mae Foundation and the Urban Institute at 31. This trend continued until the recession in 2008. At the same time, rents have dramatically increased. The fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in the District is almost $1300 per month, an increase of 41% from the year 2000. To afford this rent without an unreasonable rent burden, a family must earn more than $50,000 per year. While the pace of the loss of affordable units may be slowing, the impact of the last decade of development is still being felt. In 2004 alone, 12,000 units of affordable housing were lost and replaced by high cost rentals or high value homes. As a result, the neighborhoods in which poor and moderate income families can live has shrunk, economic integration has declined and the concentration of poverty has increased.
We look forward to Professor Rolnik’s report and hope that it will influence housing policy in the United States.