Panelists discuss housing as a human right not a place for profits


Zoom screenshot

The U.S. Human Rights Cities Alliance and Pittsburgh Human Rights Working Group hosted an event titled “Housing Justice, Human Rights and Health Webinar: Engaging Locally” with Leilani Farha on Thursday night.

By Natalie Frank, Senior Staff Writer

Leilani Farha said one of the only solutions to stop the spread of COVID-19 — staying home — has exposed the inequality of housing access and the severity of homelessness.

“The only prescription that we have that was issued by the World Health Organization is to stay home,” Farha, former United Nations special rapporteur and current global director of THE SHIFT housing movement, said. “It is for that reason that all of this has been blown open.”

The U.S. Human Rights Cities Alliance and Pittsburgh Human Rights Working Group hosted “Housing Justice, Human Rights and Health Webinar: Engaging Locally with Leilani Farha” Thursday night. The event focused on addressing housing challenges in urban areas and the importance of classifying housing as a human right.

The event featured five panelists, including Pittsburgh housing activists Randall Taylor and Carl Redwood, soon to be Pennsylvania State Representative from Philadelphia Regina Young, Sanae Lahgazi-Alaoui from the Housing Justice League in Atlanta and Farha. Individuals from across the country tuned in to the event including from Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Boston.

Farha said she hopes people recognize, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, that housing is a human right that can’t be commodified. 

“I really believe strongly in putting in the public domain competing narratives,” Farha said. “We have to keep putting in the public domain the narrative that housing is a human right.”

An estimated 30 million to 40 million people are at risk in the United States because of the pandemic, according to the Aspen Institute. Gov. Tom Wolf hasn’t extended his order from May that halted evictions and foreclosures in the state.

But Lahgazi-Alaoui said there are more challenges to housing that aren’t related to the pandemic. She said people have started to question the United States’ economic system and how it impacts housing opportunities due to the election.

“I think that the opportunity that exists in this moment both as an electoral political presidential election is happening and the larger economic and political moments,” Lahgazi-Alaoui said. “Is how all of these divergent issues or struggles are very inherently related.”

Young said the movement for affordable and accessible housing starts from the bottom up, and communities can’t wait for leaders to respond. She encouraged attendees to “empower” themselves.

“We can no longer wait for leaders and politicians to make decisions that address our basic needs,” Young said. “We need to empower ourselves and equip ourselves with the education and the information so that we can know what resources to go after to show them ‘we demand what we need and we’re not going to take anything less than.’”

A focus of the event was capitalism’s role in the housing and eviction crisis. Redwood, who works at the Hill District Consensus Group in Pittsburgh, said America is currently in a state of “racialized capitalism,” which allows the capitalist system to infiltrate the housing sector, putting profit over human rights.

“The system we’re in is a system of racialized capitalism,” Redwood said. “And under racialized capitalism, housing is a commodity to produce profit for a few people at the top.”

Lahgazi-Alaoui said she thinks the current capitalist state in the country focuses more on housing as a form of profit rather than an individual’s need.

“I think that’s where this mentality needs to change,” Lahgazi-Alaoui said. “This idea that housing is a translation, that you can even profit off of someone else’s need for housing.”

Taylor, who works at Penn Plaza Support and Action Group in Pittsburgh, mediated the questions throughout the event. Led by dispersed residents, Penn Plaza Support and Action Group is a grassroots organization that focuses on fighting gentrification and supporting affordable housing and tenants’ rights by providing housing development preference to those who have been displaced.

Taylor shared his own story of eviction, and how his work today creates “small victories” that help those who were displaced from their neighborhoods and “forced outside of the city” due to businesses buying out neighborhoods.

“I lived some place for 10 years,” Taylor said. “And suddenly my rent was being doubled, and I can’t afford to live in a neighborhood that I used to live in.”

Lahgazi-Alaoui compared big businesses that have infiltrated neighborhoods to “ghosts” and said this form of gentrification is universal to many cities across the country.

The panelists agreed that more has to be done to help those struggling to find secure housing in urban areas. Young said a possible solution starts with “building networks” through community organizations, especially in urban areas.

“I do believe our intent to at least start the lines of communication and educating each of our communities in our major cities, in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” Young said. “We can start building networks of interest there just to make people aware.”

Lahgazi-Alaoui said issues of eviction are interconnected with issues of race, meaning both issues must be addressed simultaneously.

“The opportunity we have is to connect these broad issues, from police brutality to eviction, and how those things are very interrelated,” Lahgazi-Alaoui said. “And the ways that the people that act out the evictions are the police.”

Farha referenced the Black Lives Matter movement as a possible model for the call to action, or movement aspect of housing justice.
“A model for me has actually been Black Lives Matter,” Farha said. “The way it started embryonically and has grown into a decentralized movement, I actually think that’s what we need.”

Young said while not all housing issues can be addressed immediately, she is hopeful of a better future through focusing on “what we can control,” including education and community outreach.

“Housing education and housing justice is something that I do believe is within the grasp of the people,” Young said. “So if we can continue on with those conversations and grow into other cities and then ultimately impact the state, in my opinion, that will be a great start.”