The Right to Adequate Housing in the U.S. – Symposium Report

On April 26, 2013, a packed room of close to 150 attorneys, advocates, and federal, state, and local government officials gathered in New York City for a national symposium on Bringing Economic & Social Rights Home: The Right to Adequate Housing in the U.S. Co-sponsored by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI), the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), and the Northeastern Law School Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE), and hosted at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the symposium connected participants to advanced legal analysis and practice from the U.S. and abroad to aid the housing rights movements’ ability to advocate on behalf of homeless and poor Americans.

The participants, co-sponsors, and speakers represented over 80 organizations from 15 states, including federal, state, and local government agencies and the judiciary. A report by the Law Center, now available, summarizes the day’s activities, outcomes and next steps where participants can continue to work together.  Some of those outcomes include: a CD, distributed at the symposium, containing hundreds of right to housing articles, manuals, and other resources; a planned symposium edition of the Columbia Human Right Law Review; deeper connections to local and national networks for human rights; and a strengthened sense of solidarity amongst the participants that they are part of a truly national, and international, movement for the human right to housing.  Links to resources from the conference are collected at the end of the report.

Here is an excerpt:

Following a welcome by Risa Kaufman, Executive Director of HRI, participants heard opening keynote remarks from Rob Robinson, co-director of the Take Back the Land campaign and Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the NLCHP. Rob, who has previously experienced homelessness himself, reminded participants of the importance of the movement for the human right to housing being led by those most directly affected by housing rights violations. Maria, who founded the Law Center more than two decades ago, shared how her inability to provide an adequate answer to her homeless client’s questions about needing housing led her to become one of the leading advocates for housing as a human right in the U.S.

Evan Wolfson, Executive Director of Freedom to Marry, in conversation with Olatunde Johnson, Professor at Columbia Law School, provided a lunch keynote with much food for thought in lessons from the marriage equality campaign, a campaign that 20 years ago seemed as near-impossible as the campaign for the right to housing seems today. While insisting there is no silver bullet, he shared the campaign’s Roadmap to Victory, which sets a clear vision of what is desired, gets people believing victory is possible, but not inevitable, then develops strategies to create the necessary critical mass of support to support either political actors or judges to act in concert with the vision. In response to questions, he noted that not all the lessons from his campaign would carry over – one of their arguments is that when gay people win the right to marry, they won’t use up all the marriage licenses, so people don’t have to worry about shortage; with housing, however, given (perhaps artificial) resource constraints, supporting the right to housing may take away resources from protecting other rights. Advocates need to better command this narrative, appeal to American’s sense of justice and equality, and create manageable, effective, achievable solutions to help reframe the issue and achieve success.

…Participant evaluations from the symposium were overwhelmingly positive. Many of those in attendance indicated their intent to integrate the knowledge and skills gained from the symposium into their legal advocacy efforts. The symposium’s organizers are eager to support these efforts. A few immediate steps and resources participants can take advantage of include:

  • Revisit the day’s events – A video recording of the day’s proceedings will be available at the Bringing Human Rights Home Network’s secure website, http://web.law.columbia.edu/human-rights-institute/us-human-rights-online. To join and receive a password, contact Greta Moseson, greta.moseson@law.columbia.edu.
  • Join the movement for the human right to housing – NLCHP has a list of attorneys and other advocates working on a long term litigation and public advocacy strategy to promote the human right to housing domestically. To join, contact Eric Tars, etars@nlchp.org. You can also get updates on housing and human rights issues by following us on Twitter: @NLCHPhomeless; liking us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/homelessnesslaw, reading our blog: homelessnesslaw.org, or joining our general email list: nlchp.org.
  • Help develop international standards on housing rights to apply domestically – NLCHP is also coordinating domestic and international advocacy on housing & homelessness issues around the review of the U.S. government under the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights this fall. To join, contact Eric Tars, etars@nlchp.org.
  • Join the movement of lawyers for human rights in the U.S. – HRI runs the Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyer’s Network, connecting attorneys working on domestic human rights across issues via listservs, trainings, meetings, and online resources. To join, contact Greta Moseson, greta.moseson@law.columbia.edu.
  • Join the broader movement for human rights in the U.S. -The US Human Rights Network helps facilitate numerous joint campaigns on human rights issues and provides training and other resources. The USHRN will be hosting its national conference and member meeting in Atlanta, GA, December 6-8, 2013. For more information: http://www.ushrnetwork.org/

We look forward to working with many of you in the years to come to help bring human rights home, and make the right to a home a reality here in the U.S.!

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