“Housing is a human right”: conference highlights global housing issues and displacement

For Leilani Farha, a Canadian housing advocate, addressing housing issues is an essential part of advocating for human rights.

“Of course, housing is a human right,” Farha said. “And I can say that with confidence, because it’s in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Farha spoke at a public lecture Wednesday at the Barco Law Building titled “Using International Law and Institutions to Support Housing as a Human Right.” The conference was part of the Global Studies Center’s week-long celebration of National Fair Housing Month. The week included public lectures, panel discussions, a press conference and a community action dialogue centered on whether fair housing is a human right.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act in April 1968, which is a landmark civil rights law that made discrimination in the housing trade illegal. The law prohibited discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and family status. In honor of this legislation, National Fair Housing Month is celebrated every April.

Farha is a licensed lawyer in Canada and former United Nations Special Rapporteur from 2014-2020, where she focused on fair housing issues. She is also Global Director of The passagewhich is an international organization that focuses on securing housing and ending homelessness.

According to Veronica Dristas, associate director of the Global Studies Center, Farha was asked to speak at Pitt for National Fair Housing Month for many reasons, including her global advocacy.

“She has been a leading global voice highlighting the dangers of the growing financialization of housing,” Dristas said. “She has been outspoken and courageous in confronting governments and big business to remind them of their human rights obligations under international law and told awareness and institutional support for the human right to housing.

Dristas said Farha’s work as director for The Shift is particularly important because she is building a “movement”.

“She is helping to build a movement of community advocates and government leaders at local and national levels to develop new thinking and policy models that can counter financialization and protect people’s right to safe and decent housing,” said Dristas.

According to Farha, since the start of the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to work outside her home in Ottawa as much. But before coming to Pittsburgh this week, she made a trip to Palestine to help those displaced in Israeli-occupied territory.

As part of her housing advocacy, Farha also starred in a documentary titled “To pushwhich focuses on the problem of inadequate housing around the world. This documentary is mostly told through Farha’s perspective, as she uncovers big corporations taking over places like Toronto, Harlem and Notting Hill in London, raising rent prices and subsequently displacing people from Their houses.

According to Farha, many African Americans are being moved to Harlem due to the rising cost of living in the neighborhood.

Describing a black man living in Harlem featured in the documentary, Farha said the people of these neighborhoods make up the history and culture of the neighborhood. By kicking them out of their homes, she says, corporations are robbing them of their culture.

“I asked him…what does it mean to you, if you’re going to be moved from Harlem?” He said, “My story is over,” Farha said.

The conference also included a Q&A section where Pitt students and faculty asked Farha questions about housing law and her work. Randall Taylor, a member of the Human Rights City Alliance in Pittsburgh and co-organizer of the event, asked Farha about the impact of different housing policies on people of color in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, as well as what people can do with the help of the law to prevent them from leaving their homes due to rising rents.

Taylor said he understands first-hand the difficulties of moving since being moved from his home in Pittsburgh.

“I want you to see a real displaced person alive by circumstance [that] took me back to Penn Plaza, East Liberty, and I was moved along with 500 of my neighbors and it was, again, one of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever had,” Taylor said.

Hearing about Taylor’s experience, Farha said it was important to hear the stories of displaced people. Farha also explained how displacement can ruin lives physically, mentally and emotionally.

During the conference, Farha also declared Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights said, Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.

According to Farha, after the horrific disasters that occurred during World War II, many countries came together to discuss the rights that everyone should have across the world, including the right to housing.

Although Farha explained how international law can barely impact a country’s housing laws, she said it was important to note the significance of the fact that so many nations agree that the housing is a human right through the United Nations declaration. Farha said that for international law to be effective, governments must act on it.

“I’m going to be honest in saying that I think international human rights law is useless if it just stays on paper,” she said.

Angela C. Hale