Recently in United Nations Category
A United Nations treaty committee ruled Friday that the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina has had a greater negative impact on displaced black residents and called on the federal government to do more to guarantee that they can return to affordable housing in their hometowns.
The U.N. committee also ruled Friday that the U.S. government must make sure displaced residents have a greater say in plans that affect their return.
Housing advocates in New Orleans proclaimed the decision as a victory in their protracted battle with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the U.N. finding proved that HUD failed to consider alternatives to its plans to demolish four large public housing complexes and replace them with a mixed-income model with fewer total units.
Advocates called on HUD to halt the demolitions and specifically focused on one of the complexes, Lafitte, saying its sturdy buildings are historic and can be easily repaired to increase the supply of affordable housing in the city.
The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously in December to demolish the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard and Lafitte complexes. Before the council vote, Mayor Ray Nagin approved demolition permits for all the complexes except Lafitte.
Unlike a statement from two U.N. experts last week that culled observations of anti-demolition activists to accuse HUD of discrimination, the U.N. committee considered input from both sides of the debate. But in issuing its findings, the committee did not call on HUD to halt demolition plans in New Orleans.
HUD responded to the U.N. committee findings, released Friday in Geneva, Switzerland, by equating them with the ad hoc statements from the two U.N. agents, who acknowledged this week that they had not been to New Orleans since Katrina.
"The view from the Alps is obviously different than the view from the Mississippi," HUD spokeswoman D.J. Nordquist said. "Based on that information, it would seem that this report cannot possibly mean anything. Our plan is a vast improvement over the old paradigm of concentrating families in islands of poverty, a recipe for dependence and despair across generations."
The U.N. committee, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, was considering whether the United States had complied over the past seven years with the anti-racism treaty the country signed in 1994. It praised the United States for some of the steps the government has made to address racial discrimination, including the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
But among its concerns, which included admonishing the United States for de facto segregation in public schools, police brutality and permitting life imprisonment of juveniles, the treaty committee singled out housing issues in the wake of Katrina.
"The committee, while noting the efforts undertaken by the (U.S. government) and civil society organisations to assist the persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina of 2005, remains concerned about the disparate impact that this natural disaster continues to have on low-income African American residents, many of whom continue to be displaced after more than two years after the hurricane," the CERD report said.
The committee recommended that the U.S. government work more aggressively to get displaced residents into "adequate and affordable housing, where possible in their place of habitual residence." It specifically said the government needed to "ensure genuine consultation and participation of persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina in the design and implementation of all decisions affecting them."
The U.N. body then told the 24-member U.S. delegation, comprised mostly of State Department and Justice Department representatives, to report back within a year to show how it had addressed the committee’s concerns.
Nordquist said HUD has, in fact, consulted extensively with public housing tenant groups. The tenant groups have held numerous meetings with the developers of new complexes and visited other cities to study similar redevelopment projects. And she said HUD has worked vigorously to help the displaced return home.
"We have gone to extraordinary lengths to bring all citizens home who so choose, with the government not only paying for their relocation costs, but also helping residents break leases wherever they are if they would like to come back to New Orleans," she said.
Battle over Lafitte
At a news conference in New Orleans on Friday, a group of human rights, faith-based and advocacy organizations seized on the U.N. findings to ask city officials to stop HUD-ordered demolition work, particularly at the Lafitte complex, a development in Treme that sustained little damage in the 2005 hurricane.
While there is no permit to demolish Lafitte, contractors have begun asbestos abatement work, which advocates said is a thinly veiled effort to begin demolition complex before Nagin issues a permit.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., countered with a letter to Nagin urging him to grant the permit immediately so the city will be able to meet a 2010 HUD funding deadline for completing the replacement projects. Vitter criticized the U.N. committee for not taking a closer, on-the-ground look at the issue.
"I’ve been working in the Senate to bring about a common-sense resolution to the New Orleans public housing issue," Vitter said. "And even without the input and assistance of the U.N., it is apparent that the old New Orleans public housing system was broken. Recent news reports have noted that the majority of former residents surveyed stated that they have no desire to return to those conditions."
HUD argues that its plans for stick-built houses and mixed-income neighborhoods, some of which are already housing residents, will end the concentrated poverty of traditional housing developments. On Thursday, HUD came out with a University of Texas at Arlington survey that showed most of the 2,109 residents surveyed didn’t want to return to Housing Authority of New Orleans public housing units, findings HUD said proved it will have enough new units for everyone who wants to come back.
But Damon Hewitt, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a New Orleans native, said HUD is presenting public housing residents with a false choice of "go back to the same old way or just stay away."
"We can have a policy debate about what the housing should look like, but the issue we have moral clarity on is, What about the people who want to come back and have nothing to come home to?" Hewitt said.
Critical of new construction
Julie Andrews, a former resident at the Desire complex, said she much preferred the sturdy old brick buildings to a new stick-built unit she describes as thin-walled and cramped, even if it is more attractive on the outside.
Opponents of the demolitions pointed to a report by John Fernandez, an architecture professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who inspected the four complexes last year. Fernandez found that the complexes feature heavy masonry buildings that are safer, stronger and cheaper to rehabilitate and bring up to code than building new stick-built units. Robert Tannen, an urban planner from New Orleans, said the HUD plans don’t take that into account.
"Unfortunately, we haven’t separated the urban policy debate from the hysterical social arguments," he said.
Fernandez, who was paid by housing advocates to provide expert testimony in a lawsuit against HUD, also suggested that the older buildings can better withstand damage from severe storms and hurricanes.
Whatever new buildings HUD constructs must meet a more stringent building code. Commercial buildings in New Orleans, including public buildings and apartment complexes, have been required to meet International Building Code standards since that code was adopted in New Orleans in January 2005, a year before the code was adopted statewide.
That code requires buildings to be built to withstand 130-mph winds and meet other standards to withstand hurricanes.
The state’s adoption of International Code Council commercial and residential codes required use of similar International Residential Code standards for single-family and two-family homes, beginning in January 2006.
A big aspect of the U.N. treaty body’s ruling is the international shaming that comes with a finding of racial discrimination. The U.N. follows international human rights laws that define racial discrimination based on how minorities are affected by government policies, not the intent of those policies. The U.N. report Friday explicitly criticized the United States for denying discrimination simply because none was intended.
The advocates welcomed the U.N. ruling as a way to hold HUD accountable for the thousands of black New Orleanians who haven’t been able to return home, even if the government policies aren’t overtly racist.
"People are always looking for smoking guns to prove" racism, Hewitt said. "But we know that’s not how racial discrimination works today in this country."
February 29, 2008, Atlanta, Georgia – Reacting to yesterday’s report by a UN expert calling on the U.S. government to immediately stop evictions and demolitions of public housing in New Orleans, Ajamu Baraka, Executive Director of the US Human Rights Network said, "The Comments from the UN experts captured the reality of situation in New Orleans. What is happening to low-income families in New Orleans is a national disgrace — and must stop immediately. Human rights and civil rights organizations across the country welcome and support the United Nations’ intervention on this issue."
There has been criticism of the UN report from some who expressed surprise that the UN would intervene on such an issue. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) stated, "The United Nations, an organization that has been scrutinized for its exploitation of the poor… has deemed itself a high enough authority to look down its nose at us here in the United State over the public housing debate." Senator Vitter also characterized the United Nations as a "wasteful international organization" and encouraged the UN to focus on cleaning up its own act rather than commenting on U.S. efforts.
In response, Baraka stated, "Those who would say that the UN is a ‘foreign organization’ clearly have not done their homework. The U.S. is a major player within the United Nations – and the UN experts who commented on conditions in New Orleans did so as a result of appeals from U.S. citizens."
The USHRN urges the U.S. government to heed the call from UN experts, halt ongoing evictions and demolitions of public housing in New Orleans, and take immediate steps to protect the rights of those who continue to feel the effects of Hurricane Katrina, many of whom are African America. The statement was released by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing, Miloon Kohtari, and a UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, just days after over 120 activists associated with the USHRN returned from Geneva to monitor the Bush Administration’s compliance under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), an international treaty signed by the U.S., which carried the force of law in the United States.
While in Geneva, activists and experts affiliated with the USHRN testified before United Nations officials about the reality of racial discrimination in the U.S., including the race related effects of Hurricane Katrina. In their statement to the U.S. government, Kothari and MacDougall address the fact that more than 12,000 people remain homeless in the New Orleans metro area alone; demolition of public housing may lead to the displacement of more than 5,000 more families; federal and local authorities continue to ignore the disparate impacts of Hurricane Katrina, claiming that the discrimination is not intentional; and the government must meaningfully consult and engage with the communities and families affected by the demolitions and redevelopment in order to protect the rights of those people who have been affected, who are mostly African American.
On February 28, 2008 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, and the UN Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, issued a joint press statement expressing serious concern over the process leading to the demolition of thousands of units of public housing in New Orleans and calling for a halt to the ongoing demolitions. The statement expressed the UN Independent Experts’ dismay over reports of violations of international human rights law in connection with these demolitions, including the right to participation and the right to adequate housing, for former public housing residents. They further called on the U.S. government to halt ongoing demolitions to ensure that redevelopment plans include participation by former public housing tenants and respect their right to return. The joint statement follows a private communication on December 17, 2007 by the UN Independent Experts to the U.S. government.
In responding to the press statement, U.S. Senator David Vitter (LA-R) stated: "Sadly, the debate on public housing reform in New Orleans has taken a turn toward [sic] theater of the absurd … The current redevelopment plan promotes homeownership and independence and provides a fresh alternative to the decades-old, failed New Orleans public housing system …"
To characterize the United Nations, to which the U.S. is a major contributor, as a "theater of absurd" is disconcerting enough, but to describe the demolitions as a "fresh alternative" is morally reprehensible. Local and federal officials’ decision to allow minimally damaged public housing units to remain closed after the storms has directly contributed to the swelled numbers of homeless persons living in New Orleans. Moreover, the demolitions are not accompanied by plans for homeownership. On the contrary, Mr. Vitter has been a staunch opponent of the Gulf Coast Recovery Act, which guarantees one for one replacement and the right to return of former public housing residents. Mr. Vitter’s posturing on this matter is in direct opposition to international human rights law, specifically the human right to housing and the right to participation.
The South African Constitution Court recently ruled in Occupiers of 51 Olivia Road v. City of Johannesburg, that "before an order of eviction that would lead to homelessness is granted at the instance of a municipality, there [must be] meaningful engagement or, at least, … the municipality [must make] reasonable efforts towards meaningful engagement." This internationally recognized right to participation is likewise reflected in Section 28 of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: "Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration." With respect to the human rights to housing, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states: "The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate … housing …" The current demolitions are in direct conflict with both the right to participation and the right to housing.
We applaud the statement made by the UN Independent Experts and encourage the U.S. government to heed this call from the international community and respect the human rights of hurricane survivors.
A full copy of the UN statement is available at:
A full copy of the UN statement is available at:http://www.unhchr.ch/huricane/huricane.nsf/view01/907604B6DAF5E2F1C12573FD007AD7DC?opendocument
GENEVA — United Nations experts weighed in Thursday on the debate over public housing in New Orleans, accusing the U.S. federal government and local authorities of forcing predominantly black residents into homelessness.
The experts said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local governments will violate the human rights of thousands of New Orleans residents by demolishing public housing units.
They said the majority of those affected are black and many were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
The U.S. mission in Geneva declined to comment immediately.
The U.N. statement cited the start of demolition work on the St. Bernard public housing development in New Orleans, and said there were similar plans for the Lafitte, B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete developments.
The experts said these demolitions, combined with the spiraling costs for private housing and rental units, puts African-American communities badly hurt by Hurricane Katrina "in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness."
The U.N.-appointed experts called on the governments of the United States, Louisiana and New Orleans to halt demolitions of public housing and include current and former residents of the city in discussions to help them return to their homes.
The heated debate over public housing in New Orleans sparked several protests while the City Council finalized the demolitions, and caused a small riot at City Hall.
The United Nations has weighed in on the public housing debate in New Orleans, coming down squarely on the side of displaced residents.
Two independent experts, working with the U.N. Humans Rights Commission report that the demolition of public housing in the city is effectively denying the right of return to minorities.
”Whether or not the demolitions were intentionally discriminatory, ‘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,”’ their report said.