"Human Rights and the Demolition of Public Housing in New Orleans"March/April 2008 issue of Poverty & Race
At the same time that the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was reviewing the U.S. record in Geneva (see article on page 7), two advisors to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights—Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non‑discrimination in this context, and Gay McDougall, the UN Independent Expert on minority issues—on Feb. 28, 2008 issued the following statement on the housing crisis in New Orleans. – Ed.
We are deeply concerned about information we continue to receive about the housing situation of people in New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region. African‑American communities were badly affected by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The spiraling costs of private housing and rental units, and in particular the demolition of public housing, puts these communities in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness. There are reports that more than 12,000 people are homeless in the Greater New Orleans metropolitan area alone.
A number of reports suggest that federal (led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and local government decisions concerning public housing in New Orleans would lead to the demolition of thousands of public housing units affecting approximately 5,000 families who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The demolition of the St. Bernard public housing development apparently commenced the week of 18 February 2008, and others are planned for the Lafitte, B.W. Cooper, and C.J. Peete public housing developments.
Meaningful consultation and participation in decision‑making of communities and families affected by these demolitions and related redevelopment proposals appears not to have taken place. While we understand the intention to replace the demolished housing, we understand that only a portion of the new housing units will be for residents in need of subsidized housing and the remainder will be offered at the market rate. Further, we understand that the new housing will not be available for a significant period of time nor will there be one-for-one replacement for housing units destroyed. These demolitions, therefore, could effectively deny thousands of African‑American residents their right to return to housing from which they were displaced by the hurricane.
The authorities claim that the demolition of public housing is not intentionally discriminatory. Notwithstanding the validity of these claims, the lack of consultation with those affected and the disproportionate impact on poorer and predominantly African‑ American residents and former residents would result in the denial of internationally recognized human rights.
The right to an adequate standard of living enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to adequate housing. The international community has made it clear that those displaced from their place of residence, whether by conflict or natural disaster, should have their rights particularly protected in reconstruction efforts. The inability of former residents of public housing to return to the homes they occupied prior to Hurricane Katrina would in practice amount to an eviction for those who returned or wish to return. International human rights law prohibits evictions from taking place without due process, including the right of those evicted to be given due notice and opportunity to appeal eviction decisions. It also requires the authorities to ensure that large‑scale evictions do not result in massive homelessness and to consult those affected on relocation or alternative housing solutions.
International human rights law, including relevant provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, also clearly prohibits actions that result in a discriminatory impact denying individuals or groups equal enjoyment of human rights because of their race, ethnicity, social or other status.
We therefore call on the Federal Government and State and local authorities to immediately halt the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans. This measure should be accompanied by all measures ensuring genuine consultation and participation of current residents—or former residents wishing to return—in all relevant decisions. We also call on the authorities to ensure that redevelopment plans do not discriminate against former residents and that every effort is made to consider alternatives to demolition or redevelopment proposals, so as to protect the rights of the poorer and predominantly African‑American communities displaced by Hurricane Katrina. o
The above-mentioned UN independent experts sent a letter to the U.S. Government on 17 December 2007 in regard to this situation, noting their concern about allegations received and asking for further information. They encourage the authorities to give urgent attention to this issue and consider alternative proposals, such as those reflected in the provisions of draft Senate Bill 1668, which would be more protective of the rights of the more vulnerable groups affected by the Hurricane.
For further information on the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing and the Independent Expert on minority issues, please consult, respectively, the following websites: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/housing/index.htm and http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/expert/index.htm
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