Is housing a universal human right?
This is the question that community members gathered to discuss in a town-hall style meeting at the Church of the Epiphany on October 28. The Focus Attitude and Commitment to Excellence (FACE) group of Street Sense vendors, along with the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC), convened to form a panel and deliberate, with an audience of housed and unhoused individuals, on issues of housing, poverty and homelessness.
[Disclosure: Street Sense Media rents office space from the Church of the Epiphany]
Robert Warren, the executive director of the People for Fairness Coalition, Sheila White, member of FACE and PFFC, Dominic Moulden of One DC, William Merrifield of Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Schyla Pondexter-Moore from Empower DC and Jane Zara, a public interest lawyer, came together on a panel moderated by Patty Mullahy Fugere of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Fugere opened the forum with an anecdote about her son when he was a young child. While looking at empty lots, he had asked her why houses for homeless people couldn’t just be zapped there like a miracle. “We are the instruments of that miracle,” Fugere had replied. “A miracle is a profound change, not magic,” she said to the assembly, “and D.C. is capable of living up to its title of a human rights city, if people serve as catalysts to a miracle.”
Washington became the first “human rights city” in the United States after passage of a D.C. Council a ceremonial resolution in December 2008. The resolution, defined this idea as a city where “residents and local authorities, through on-going discussions and creative exchanges of ideas, come to understand that human rights, when widely known as a way of life, assist in identifying the issues and informs the actions in our DC communities, for meaningful, positive economic and social change.” Proponents have since argued that being designated as a human rights city means striving to achieve the 30 articles outlined in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – one of which is an “adequate standard of living” that includes housing.
The panel of advocates unanimously agreed with this ideal and worked to explore practical roads to achieving it. They started by defining “good” housing. Answers varied: safe, comfortable, accessible – housing as a civil, legal, and human right. Overall consensus was best summarized by Moulden of One DC: “Whether you have a good job or don’t have a job,
whether you are able-bodied or not, whether you have an income or not, you deserve housing as a human right”
15,000 households on the brink of homelessness daily
The question remained how to make this possible legally, institutionally, fiscally, and humanely. Consensus: “affordable housing and public housing.”
Affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as costing no more than 30 percent of an individual’s income. However, the majority of people in Washington D.C. pay 50 percent of their income and above, leaving 15,000 households on the brink of homelessness every day, according to Merrifield of the Legal Clinic. He added that D.C has a surplus in their budget of $13 billion, which he believes could be allocated better. “Instead of spending, say, $200 million to build luxury apartments, that money could be spent on public housing,” Merrifield insisted, saying that developers seeking profit develop intimate relationships with politicians in the District, which might lead to a bending of public will towards profit as opposed to poverty alleviation.
The government’s inclination toward demolition, rebuilding and privatization contributes to the issues of infrastructure shortage for public housing options, according to Pondexter-Moore of Empower D.C. She argued that these practices -– as opposed to maintenance and repurposing of existing properties – fuel gentrification. “You have to meet people where they are,” she said. Pondexter-Moore’s recent efforts in collaboration with Empower D.C. reaped a $5 million allocation for the maintenance and repair of existing public housing, and this, she believes, is a start. She also said that existing “wasted” and abandoned property needs to be addressed by the city and converted into useful space as well, a sentiment echoed by Councilmember Anita Bonds in her B21-0837 Historic Preservation of Derelict District Properties Act of 2016 bill, proposed at a Nov. 1 council meeting. “We have to change the idea that public housing is ‘bad,’” Pondexter-Moore said, insisting instead that it is “necessary” and that the communities created by it prevents displacement. “‘Concentrated poverty’ is a discriminatory term — poverty is not increased because we’re living next to each other [in a community.]”
“We Have to Meet People Where They Are”
Zara, the public interest lawyer, and Moulden expounded on this Pondexter-Moore’s sentiment. Zara said that patterns in poverty and unstable housing can very much be an issue of race. “People of color are being denied housing in white and often wealthy areas, that’s just a fact,” she said, citing her observations that courts frequently shift the burden to determine demographic information onto individuals affected by poverty to determine. “We need to move away from the legality of it, though,” Moulden retorted, far from the first or last butting of heads between he and Zara that night. “Imagine just walking outside … and
looking around and seeing every vacant condo for sale being liberated [for public housing use] … that’s my idea of [what needs to happen.],” Moulden said.
As the meeting ended, amid insistence by other panelists to get organized, Pondexter-Moore urged attendees to use the inclusive term “we,” to value and protect public spaces, and to continue to fight.
“At the end of the day, every politician says that housing is their number one issue” Merrifield said, laughing, “but until they actually do something, we can’t let them push people out and create their own new definition of the ‘lower class’ … join an organization.” “Speak out, yell out, shout out”
This is not just a D.C. issue, but looking at the root of displacement is a start on solving it, according to Merrifield.