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By Alex Kane
Public housing residents, victims of foreclosure, and homeless people gave testimony on New York City’s housing crisis Oct. 22 at a town hall meeting with the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnick.
In what was often disturbing and emotional three-minute testimonies, New Yorkers shared stories of unscrupulous landlords, predatory equity firms, and a broken homeless shelter system with the Special Rapporteur, a Brazilian urban planner and architect.
“It’s time for America to look in the mirror and realize how land is a significant factor in the class struggle,” said Rob Robinson, the New York City chair for the U.N. visit and a housing organizer withPicture the Homeless. “It’s time for America to abide by the Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After all, housing is a human right.”
The town hall meeting, held at the Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights, kicked off Rolnick’s nationwide tour that will bring her from the rural community of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where the foreclosure crisis has hit hard, to New Orleans, Louisiana, where public housing has been demolished and privatized. Her visit marks the first time a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Housing has visited the U.S.
In New York over the next two days, Rolnick will be visiting homes in foreclosure and public housing sites in Queens, the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, where she will be hosted by grassroots organizations.
The site visit to New York comes as the economic recession has only exacerbated the homeless and affordable housing crises in the city. The homeless shelter population is at its highest level since the Great Depression, while the shortage of public housing continues to plague the area, with about 130,000 families on the waiting list for public housing.
Across the country, unemployment, poverty and homelessness continue to rise.
“I see this mission as an opportunity to open a dialogue, to open a movement, towards the achievement and implementation of the right to adequate housing,” said Rolnick, who was appointed to her post in May 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. “We know very well that changes will come only if people organize.”
Before the town hall meeting, Rolnick met with members of the New York City Council, and while in Washington, D.C., will meet with Housing and Urban Development and Obama administration officials. The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty are coordinating the U.S. State Department approved trip around the country.
The New York City visit is being sponsored by a wide range of grassroots organizations from the five boroughs, including Good Old Lower East Side, the Coalition to Save Harlem, Mothers on the Move, and Organizing Asian Communities.
Cynthia Butts, a New York City Housing Authority resident in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, shared her story with Rolnick. “If you come to Brooklyn, I will take you personally on a tour of Fort Greene. I will explain to you the history of Fort Greene, and I will also show you the damage of Fort Greene,” said Butts, a member of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. “We have been displaced, we have been relocated…There are still empty, vacant apartments. So who are you holding these apartments for?” Fort Greene, like other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, has experienced a wave of gentrification in recent years.
At least 25 people testified in front of the Rapporteur, who will use the testimony, as well as information from site visits, to present a report to the U.S. government and the Human Rights Council next March.
“I am disgusted by the disinvestment [in public housing]. State, federal, where’s the money?” said Nova Strachan, a resident of Claremont Consolidated, a public housing site in the Bronx, and a Housing Justice staffer with Mothers on the Move. “You know, you bailed out Wall Street, bail out the people.”
Brenda Stokely of the New York Solidarity Coalition for Katrina/Rita Survivors urged the audience to use the meeting and testimonies to build a housing justice movement.
“This is not the end, brothers and sisters. This is just another beginning for how to build our movement,” she said.