UN: U.S. Racial Discrimination Must Be Remedied
Post-Katrina Housing Rights Violations Also Cited
Press Type: Press Release Associated Program: Human Rights
WASHINGTON, DC, March 7, 2008 -- Today in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued its Concluding Observations charging the U.S. to do more to remedy the effects of racial discrimination in housing and other areas.
The Observations come after the formal review of the U.S.'s report to the Committee under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This is a required procedure for all signatories to the treaty, which the U.S. ratified in 1994.
During the oral review, Committee member Dilip Lahiri of India recalled, "When I was in Chicago, a journalist who visited then-apartheid South Africa came back and said, 'You don't need the South African laws to achieve the [same] segregation, the discrimination in the United States.' Residential segregation ... is a persistent factor and while programs have been undertaken, it is obvious that there is a problem and some sort of a vigorous proactive action needs to be taken to show some progress on the ground."
As an example of "proactive action" the Committee cited the California Housing Element Law, which requires cities and counties to plan affordable housing for all income levels of society, rather than just building luxury condos and McMansions. A recent amendment to the law requires counties to provide at least one zoning jurisdiction where homeless shelters can be located by right, ensuring that "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" opposition does not prevent these most critical housing needs from being met.
Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), which coordinated a report signed by more than 60 organizations to the Committee detailing the systemic discrimination against racial minorities in equal access to adequate housing, welcomed the Observations: "Racial discrimination, both overt and subtle, is alive and well in America today. Viewed against international standards -- which consider impact, not just intent -- the extent of continuing racial discrimination is staggering. The sub-prime mortgage crisis, which also disproportionately impacts minority families, is exacerbating the problem."
The Committee's Observations echo the comments of another treaty review body, the Human Rights Commission, which in 2006 reviewed the U.S. for compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. ratified in 1992. That committee noted its concern that while African Americans constitute just 12% of the population, they represent 50% of homeless people, and the government is required to take "adequate and adequately implemented" measures to remedy this human rights violation.
Under human rights law, a policy counts as discrimination if the impact is discriminatory - even if that impact was unintentional. NLCHP points to the lack of funding for affordable housing and laws that criminalize homelessness as examples of such discriminatory practices.
"At the federal level, a lack of planning and funding has led to huge housing shortfalls for low and moderate income Americans; the impact is especially severe for--and falls disproportionately on--members of racial minorities," said Foscarinis. " At the local level, instead of working constructively to help homeless people, many communities have criminalized homelessness. In some cases, such as Los Angeles' Skid Row or the Minneapolis 'lurking' ordinance, the police target homeless African Americans at alarmingly disproportionate rates."
Though a step in the right direction, even the Housing Element law is still too weak, lacking essential enforcement mechanisms, Foscarinis added.
The Committee also criticized the discriminatory violations of housing rights of African Americans following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. This comes on the heels of a call from two UN experts on housing and minority rights last week for an immediate halt to the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans. These demolitions, along with other reconstruction policies, are preventing African Americans from returning to the city. The Committee calls for adequate, affordable housing in Katrina-affected areas, and also for the remedying of housing conditions in racially segregated areas across the country.
"The current situation points to a fundamental lack of respect for the rights and needs of poor and minority Americans," said Eric Tars, Human Rights Staff Attorney at NLCHP, who participated in briefings with the Committee and the U.S. government delegation. "We are pushing for a new vision, grounded in the American belief of equal opportunity, that guarantees us all our basic human rights."
"By signing this treaty, the U.S. committed to overcoming the history of discrimination in this country," Tars continued. "But rather than adequately funding housing programs which are proven to get people off the streets and back into productive society, cities, states, and the federal government all continue to try to sweep the problem under the rug. Today, the Committee gave us some clear steps we need to take to do a better job, and we intend to hold the government accountable for its obligations."
The primary cause of homelessness in the United States is a lack of affordable housing; 13.7 million Americans pay over 50% of their income on rent or live in substandard housing, putting them at high risk for homelessness.
The NLCHP report to the Committee on violations of housing rights is available at: http://nlchp.org/content/pubs/CERD_Housing_Report_20071.pdf.
The full observations of the Committee are available here:
NLCHP is the only national legal advocacy organization solely dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness. Through impact litigation, policy advocacy, and public education the organization addresses the root causes of homelessness at the local, state, and national levels.
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