Human Rights Clinic
  • Date submitted: 1 Nov 2011
  • Stakeholder type: Major Group
  • Name: Human Rights Clinic
  • Submission Document: Download
Keywords: Unemployment (1 hits),

Full Submission

The Foreclosure Crisis in the United States Poses a Threat to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication

I. Introduction

The foreclosure crisis in the United States is currently posing a serious threat to sustainable development and poverty eradication. Homes are being abandoned more and more by owners in foreclosure and they are left to fall apart. Similarly, tenants who live in foreclosed properties are left living in homes that are dilapidated, unhealthy, and unsafe because landlords are neglecting their duties during the foreclosure process. As a result, human rights violations are occurring in neighborhoods all across the United States. The Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law is currently working to bring attention to these violations of human rights. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development is an important opportunity to bring these issues into the international spotlight. We formally submit this document for input in the compilation document for the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

II. Statement of Interest

The Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law exposes students to the practice of law in the transnational and cross-cultural context of human rights litigation and advocacy at the local, national, and international levels. In the classroom, students critically engage with human rights law and contemporary social problems while honing their lawyering and advocacy skills. To bridge theory and practice, students also gain hands-on experience working directly with practitioners and affected individuals on active human rights cases and projects. The Clinic pursues litigation, legislative advocacy, community organizing, documentation, public policy analysis, media advocacy, and public education. The Clinic seeks to affect change and promote social and economic justice both locally and globally by relying upon the core principles articulated in human rights treaties, consensus documents, and related instruments.

III. The Foreclosure Crisis in the United States and ?Project No One Leaves - Miami?

As part of an effort to address human rights violations in the United States, the University of Miami School of Law?s Human Rights Clinic partners with the University of Miami School of Law?s Community Lawyering Clinic and Florida Legal Services to address the foreclosure crisis locally. Project No One Leaves - Miami (PNOL) focuses on the plight of tenants of properties in foreclosure. Tenants who rent these properties do not know what rights they have as a tenant. They often receive notices about the foreclosure, are named as parties in the foreclosure, or hear about the landlord?s financial troubles from other tenants. As a result, many of them are scared and leave the property because they believe they have no other choice. Others take cash from their new landlords in exchange for their keys, even if it is not beneficial for them, because they think it?s their only chance at compensation.

Tenants who chose to stay in homes going through the foreclosure process are often at an even greater disadvantage. The landlord who is in foreclosure, especially those who own multi-family units, often disappears and neglects their lawful duty as a landlord. The landlord no longer pays bills or makes needed repairs or renovations, leaving the tenants in bad conditions that continue to worsen. For example, some landlords of multi-family units have buildings that run on a single-read meter for utilities such as water. The landlord neglects to pay their water bills leaving the tenants without access to water, a basic necessity for living. Limited access to running water is just one example of the egregious human rights violations that tenants of foreclosed properties must endure.

While working in the community on the issue of the foreclosure crisis, we met a group of three male Nicaraguan migrant workers who had been living together as tenants in a duplex in Miami, Florida. The property had been in foreclosure for several months. Despite the fact that these tenants continued to pay rent, the landlord had turned off the water and electricity since the foreclosure process began. The property had fallen into disrepair resulting in dangerous cracks in the ceiling, non-working doors, and pest infestations. This is just one of the many examples that we have come across while doing fieldwork.

On May 20, 2009, the US Congress passed the Protecting Tenants of Foreclosure Act (PTFA) in order to address some of the issues faced by tenants whose landlords are facing foreclosure. The PTFA gives tenants some protections, but many are unaware that these protections exist. In part, the Community Lawyering Clinic and Florida Legal Services aim to address this problem through door-to-door canvassing and community meetings where tenants learn about their rights.

The large number of foreclosures throughout the United States has a profound effect on the human rights of tenants and the sustainability and development of their communities. As of September 2011, one in every 605 housing units in the US received a foreclosure filing. In addition, fifty-one percent of the foreclosure filings in 2008 were in the states of California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. According to a report by the Alameda County Public Health Department that services Oakland, California, ?foreclosures create devastating health impacts--not only for those individuals and families undergoing the process, but also whole communities that are reeling from its ripple effects and aftershocks.?

The situation is no better in the state of Florida where one in every 368 housing units received a foreclosure filing in September 2011. In Miami-Dade County, where our clinics have done fieldwork, one in every 286 housing units received a foreclosure filing in September 2011. Of the 191 units visited, between forty-three and seventy were vacant. There were also numerous other houses that were clearly not occupied. The abandoned homes were often in complete and utter disrepair. Some conditions we observed were: broken or boarded-up windows, lawns overgrown and littered with garbage, and dilapidated walls. Many of the buildings were falling apart and smelled of rot.

These conditions were not limited to the vacant houses. We visited some houses that were occupied by tenants whose landlords had stopped maintaining the property and/or paying the utility bills. This results in tenants living in deplorable conditions that include structural issues (i.e. ceiling, floor, or wall disrepair). For example, one family we met lived with roaches, broken air conditioning, a broken stove, and several plumbing problems. The landlord allowed the sewage to drain onto their yard and placed a lock on their water hose, which restricted their ability to wash anything, including their garbage cans.

Again, these conditions are not atypical. These are the sort of human rights violations that are occurring nationwide across the United States. In Oakland, California one tenant and her seven children ?experienced water shut-offs, mold and persistent vector issues.? The Alameda County Public Health Department found that twenty-nine percent of the tenants in Oakland are experiencing utility shut-offs or threats of utility shut-offs and thirty-one percent are living in unhealthy living conditions (such as mold and pests).

IV. ?Project No One Leaves - Miami? and Rio + 20

The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992 Rio Declaration) laid out integral principles to guide states in implementing sustainable development ?with the goal of establishing a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of cooperation among States, key sectors of societies and people.? One of these principles in particular, is especially important to this topic of foreclosures. Principle 8 states that:

To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.

As mentioned previously, the foreclosure crisis is affecting the quality of life for many people across the United States. In addition, the abandoned houses are an ?unsustainable pattern of production and consumption? that must be addressed. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is an important opportunity to address this issue in the context of the 1992 Rio Declaration and create new guiding principles for states faced with housing crises of this magnitude.

The goals of UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) and Project No One Leaves-Miami mesh well and complement each other. One of the main focuses of the UNCSD is ?a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.? Addressing the foreclosure crisis is critical to poverty eradication, as evidenced by the information provided above. Additionally, utilizing or perhaps updating the abandoned homes for affordable housing with greener materials is a critical step toward sustainable development.

If the crisis is not addressed, many people will face homelessness. Communities are facing ?mass displacement and homelessness? in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Further, abandoned houses are in severe disrepair and are decaying. When these homes are finally purchased, some are knocked down and large amounts of raw resources are used to build new homes. In addition, it also takes a lot of resources to restore a home from these dilapidated conditions back to livable conditions. Landlords and owners should maintain these properties regularly to avoid excess use of limited resources to make the homes habitable. Conversely, leaving these houses abandoned and in ruin is a waste of already-used resources that could be utilized. Governments could slow the development of new homes and incentivize developers to focus on the homes that are currently sitting on the market. In an effort to promote sustainability and poverty eradication, governments could set some of these homes aside for affordable housing. The houses could be updated using greener, more affordable technology to transform these homes into more energy-efficient and affordable low-income housing. Taking these steps will help alleviate poverty and will also be an effective way for governments to introduce green technology and sustainable development into fully developed areas.

V. International Human Rights Standards

International human rights standards have been recognized in various forms such as treaties, general principles and even as customary international law. International human rights laws outline the obligations of Governments to promote and protect human rights, which are universal and inalienable, interdependent and indivisible, as well as equal and non-discriminatory.

Economic and social rights in particular are a newer concept within human rights, although no less important, that have been gaining more and more recognition. In particular, the focuses of PNOL and this conference, lead us to look at three main rights within the economic and social sphere. It is hoped that the delegates to this conference raise this issue as it is directly connected to the topics of the Rio+20 conferences well as state obligations under international human rights standards. Below is a brief explanation on the right to adequate housing as the principle right, as well as the connected rights to health and water.

Human Right to Adequate Housing:

The right to adequate housing is protected in various international and regional treaties. This human right can be traced back to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). Article 25(1) of the UDHR states that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of Unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Among many other international instruments, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) has pronounced the right to adequate housing as an essential human right. More specifically, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is responsible for implementing and monitoring the ICESCR, defined the concept of adequacy in its General Comment No. 4. This General Comment listed seven specific components of the right to adequate housing as being the legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; and cultural adequacy. More specifically, the legal security of tenure ?guarantees legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.? Many of the other components directly address the correlations between the rights to housing, health, and water.

Human Right to Health:

The human right to health guarantees the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The right to health should not be thought of as the right to be healthy necessarily, but it is more properly conceptualized as the right to enjoy facilities, goods, services and conditions necessary for the realization of health. At a minimum, there must be sufficient public services that include safe drinking water and sanitation. The right to health is directly associated with the right to adequate house, as housing availability and conditions will affect the health of an individual and communities.

The UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights? General Comment No. 4 on adequate housing, articulates state obligations connected to the right to the highest attainable standard of health, in that homes must contain ?adequate space and protecting them from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind or other threats to health, structural hazards, and disease vectors.?

Human Right to Water:

In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted the General Comment on the right to water. It explains that ?the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.? It also defined the right to water as the right to ?sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.?

Furthermore, in a 2010 resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the UN, the right to water and sanitation was explicitly recognized as essential human rights. The right to water is applicable in various forms in connection with the right to adequate housing. For example, all beneficiaries of adequate housing should have sustainable access to safe drinking water, sanitation and washing facilities, and site drainage.

VI. Recommendations for Input in the Compilation Document for Rio+20 UN Conference for Sustainable Development

We recommend that the delegates to the Rio+20 Conference address this most pressing issue, which has severe impact on sustainability and poverty eradication. Specifically we recommend that:

1. States recognize their affirmative obligations to tenants and ensure that landlords are complying with the international human rights standards set forth in the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

2. States facing foreclosure crises should afford more protections to tenants of foreclosed properties. Legislation like the Protecting Tenants in Foreclosure Act (PTFA) in the US, address this need for protection, but need to go further to ensure that these tenants are not forced out of their homes and are not living in deplorable, unhealthy, and unsafe conditions.

3. Urge governments to provide incentives to public and private actors to maintain properties, thereby avoiding unnecessary renovations, and when necessary to renovate and regularly maintain these properties with greener and more affordable materials so that they can be utilized for affordable housing for low-income families.
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