Is housing a human right in the United States? Not yet, according to a variety of housing activists.

Urban planner Peter Marcuse believes housing is a human right
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

* Except where prohibited by law.

The poor, the aged, the homeless, the mentally ill — the “huddled masses” who yearn for a place to call their own — are our friends, neighbors, relatives and fellow citizens. And they are all struggling with life during wartime. In the 21st Century the United States has witnessed a sub-prime mortgage scandal that made paupers of those who would be homeowners, bailouts and bonuses for the bankers who brought us the crisis, tax cuts for the needy rich, a national debt that today’s toddlers will inherit when they enter what’s left of the work force, and a poverty draft for the poor who have been stop lossed into fighting two interminable wars, returning home where their traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorders are treated with substandard health care. And at the helm we have a president who argues that the assassination of one terrorist demonstrates that “America can do whatever we set our mind to.” Indeed, if what we set our mind to includes not caring for the have-nots, torturing prisoners, attacking sovereign states without a declaration of war and violating the civil rights of citizens in the name of democracy — in short, violating human rights in almost every aspect of domestic and foreign policy.

Social critics and muckraking journalists have a wealth of failures to choose from when looking to write a story about modern America. But the issue of housing stands out. What could be more fundamental than food and shelter?


At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in lower Manhattan, distinguised professor and urban planner Peter Marcuse (son of philosopher Herbert Marcuse) moderated a panel that featured housing activists who approach the issue in a variety of ways. Common themes included the acute shortage of affordable housing, government and landlord attempts to privatize public housing, homelessness, and the increasing divide between haves and have-nots.

Madison, Wisconsin’s Monica Adams described Take Back the Land‘s efforts to occupy housing that is vacant as a result of foreclosure. Although attempts at “gaining community control of land through direct action” has provided some families with housing, there are several factors to be considered before occupying a dwelling. The comfort and safety of the family, most often African-American, in a home that is situated in a white neighborhood, is a paramount concern. So while this approach is viable for some it does not provide an overall solution.

Michael Kane is an organizer with NAHT
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Michael Kane, based in Boston, is an organizer with the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), a group that uses a trade union organizational model for housing advocacy — local members fight to save local buildings and also send delegates to D.C. where lobbying takes place. NAHT represents tenants of private housing that’s subsidized by HUD. The property owners are too often looking to eliminate the subsidy and charge market rates — NAHT works to prevent this. In addition, the union fights for and against bills that are before Congress. Each legislative victory becomes what Kane calls “a handle” that the union can use at the local level – a ruling that may block a landlord from being able to convert a HUD subsidized property to market rate.

Kane said, “In Boston, we added it up, we’ve saved 11,400 apartments, one building at a time, through tenant organizing strategies, over 27 years.”

Tenant Association president Eric Crawford
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Eric Crawford, an NYC Tenants Association President, and Mo George of Community Voices Heard (CVH), spoke about the struggle to get public housing officials to make needed repairs in a timely manner. George said that requests submitted today will receive appointments for 2013 or 2014 due to a three year backlog. Also frustrated with lacking repairs, Crawford described how he deposits himself in the office of a housing official and declines to leave until his complaints are heard. Both organizers said that the effort involved in procuring essential repairs is exhausting and the NYC Housing Authority is expert at evading its responsibilities. In terms of a long range solution, George said that CVH is promoting an initiative called “participatory budgeting” — an effort that would give community members a voice in setting budget priorities for public housing agencies.

Kendall Jackman of Picture The Homeless
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Kendall Jackman of Picture The Homeless described how her organization uses outreach as its primary means of raising awareness. Despite the obstacles presented by homelessness, PTH members are able to advocate for affordable housing in the internet age — PTH computers make electronic outreach possible. Like their counterparts in Take Back The Land, PTH members are pushing Bloomberg to make good use of vacant apartments rather than giving these properties to developers. The census of vacant properties is something PTH would like to see done on an annual basis and they are lobbying the City Council to make this happen.

Eric Crawford said that the daunting tasks facing housing activists show the need for a mass movement. “I believe we need to come up with something similar to concept of the Tea Party movement, not saying that I endorse them, but we need a crazy type of movement in public housing,” he said.

Although organizers differed on approaches and how much a group should compromise or negotiate with officials, all of the organizers agreed that sweeping change is needed and that, approaching coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis, especially in the face of impending budget cuts in Washington, unity is essential.


One strand uniting the activists who took part in the Forum’s housing panel was concern about PETRA.

PETRA is the Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance Act of 2010, a HUD proposal that would allow Public Housing Agencies (PHA) to mortgage existing properties that are subsidized by HUD. The PHAs would solicit monies from private investors in order to maintain the properties, many of which are currently deteriorating. Activists are concerned that, in the event of foreclosure, the property might disappear from the pool of subsidized housing. Housing activists have been vocal in expressing their concerns — prompting HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to offer reassurances. In order to address the concerns of the activists, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) drafted a document that revises the original PETRA proposal. Ellison submitted the Rental Housing Revitalization Act, or H.R. 6864, to the Financial Services Committee in 2010 but it never got out of committee. Ellison is expected to resubmit the bill to the 112th Congress, in 2011. Activists will be watching this bill closely.


NLN Video Coverage of the Left Forum

Is The Rosenberg Case Closed?

Latin America After The Neoliberal Debacle

The Perfect Swindle

Progressive Housing

Solidarity Economy

Progressive Housing Panel (Highlights)


Staten Island Mental Health Council co-chair Larry Hochwald
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)


In February of 2011, the Staten Island Advance ran an editorial attacking a proposed supported housing program designed to house, in small apartments, 59 mentally ill people.

The Staten Island Advance’s editorial staff found it “stunning” that “that Saint Vincent (sic), under an agreement with the state, planned to turn [ a former convent ] into a residence for 59 mentally ill people.”

The editorial went on the describe some of the potential occupants of the facility as “Individuals discharged from prisons and jails, including sex offenders, acute psychiatric patients as well as drug addicts.”

Citing some anti-discrimination boilerplate in the Office of Mental Health (OMH) request for proposals, and ignoring the former St. Vincent’s (now St. Joseph’s) repeated assurances that a rigorous screening would ensure that only appropriate, stable clients would be accepted, the Advance went on to cite an unspecified court ruling (the Disability Associates Inc. v. Paterson “adult home” ruling) as evidence that a 59-bed facility was no longer viable.

“The courts have eliminated that large-scale residence option,” the Advance intoned.

The misreading of the ruling — a decision that affected several for-profit adult homes that house over 200 people each and provide no clinical services — was particularly ironic given that the court ordered remedy required OMH to move clients from adult homes INTO supported housing facilities, such as the one the Advance opined against. The letters to the editor from several very vocal neighbors and opponents of the proposed facility – the standard NIMBY response – doubtless played a role in the Advance’s conflating of adult homes and supported housing.

A similar, apparently self-serving, logical error was offered up at a public hearing in 2009 — an attorney who resides near the proposed facility argued that placing clients in individual supported housing apartments, clustered in one housing complex and supervised by clinical staff, subjects the residents to “stigma.”

Mental Health Council co-chair Angela Hebner speaking about the need for peer support
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

The supported housing model provides for peer support and most often the stigma residents encounter emanates from anxious neighbors who have been told by civic groups and local media that the mentally ill are “sex offenders, acute psychiatric patients” and “drug addicts.” One wonders if the Staten Island Advance is aware that the individuals so characterized read the papers — and are offended, if not wounded, in the process.

One individual who read the editorial and was both wounded and offended was activist Larry Hochwald, co-chair of the Staten Island Mental Health Council, an advocacy group.

Speaking at a legislative breakfast on March 18, Hochwald commented on the Advance finding it “stunning” that a supported housing project would house 59 mentally ill people.

“They seem to be very fearful of 59 mentally ill people being in one room together — that may explain why they didn’t answer our invitation today,” Hochwald said.

Hochwald spoke about mistaken notion that the concept of a supported housing facility “has passed.”

“How they decided that this [ the adult home ruling ] included supported housing buildings is very interesting and it speaks to what is great about America. It speaks to what I love about America, which is freedom. You have the freedom to do just about anything. You can run a newspaper and never do any research or fact checking,” Hochwald said.

Hochwald said that preparation for community integration is a goal of supported housing residents — residents who reside in buildings that “blend into the community.” Hochwald said that this goal is not addressed by adult homes who provide custodial — rather than clinical — care.

Peter Leone describing how the Skylight Center day program changed his life
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)


NLN Video Coverage of the Legislative Breakfast

Larry Hochwald on the Staten Island Advance

Hochwald and others on the critical need for housing and services

Assemblyman Michael Cusick



In 2002 the New York Times ran a series of stories called Broken Homes that detailed how the mentally ill were being warehoused in adult homes — a strategy that saved New York state money but produced what the Times described as “Neglect, malfeasance and death.”

A resident of Surf Manor (Brooklyn) lives in spartan surroundings
(Photo: Erica McDonald)

A Brooklyn based photographer named Erica McDonald also documented the treatment of the mentally ill — spending two years photographing Surf Manor residents. She published her work in Mother Jones in 2010.

In 2003 an advocacy group acted to end the suffering, ultimately winning a protracted, David and Goliath, struggle.

A landmark court case, Disability Advocates Incorporated v. [ Governor David ] Paterson, resulted in a decision commonly known as the “adult home ruling.” The 2009 ruling by a federal judge (Brooklyn district) determined that New York State had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by placing mentally ill patients in nursing homes. The ruling required the Office of Mental Health to create 4500 new supported housing beds over three years as a remedy (creating 1500 beds per year). Patients residing in nursing homes would then have the option to move into supported housing facilities. OMH complied by issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) and awarding beds to established supported housing providers. However, due to budgetary constraints, OMH reassigned beds that had been previously promised to providers looking to expand housing opportunities for patients currently on hospital units or living in shelters — in effect borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Hochwald and other housing advocates want these beds back. Hochwald argues that while adult homes are far from ideal the clients there have a roof over their heads — while many New Yorkers do not. The situation remains unresolved as OMH has opted to appeal the ruling — an appeal that will probably only delay the inevitable, at taxpayers’ expense. Housing advocates agree that there is a severe shortage of appropriate housing for the mentally ill and that moving OMH funded beds from one proposal to another, to satisfy a court order, is not a solution.

The MET Council protest at the Rent Guidelines Board meeting
(Photo: Metropolitan Council on Housing)


Several of the housing activists at the Left Forum panel on Progressive Housing said that members of their organizations had participated in civil disobedience actions as a means of focusing attention on the shortage of affordable, appropriate, housing.

In New York City, the Metropolitan Council on Housing — a tenants’ rights organization formed in 1958 — has also used civil disobedience to make their case.

In recent years the Met Council has disrupted Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) hearings — hearings that approve rent hikes — and been hauled away in police vans. The Council works to preserve rent stabilized and controlled apartments in New York City and to fight the “vacancy destabilization” of apartments — under a 1997 law an apartment with a rent of $2000 a month or more that becomes vacant can be certified “decontrolled,” allowing the landlord to convert to market rate. According to the Met Council, 300,000 affordable apartments have been lost to vacancy destabilization since the late 90s. The Council is currently campaigning to get Governor Andrew Cuomo to renew rent regulations, set to expire on June 15. Should the regulations expire, the West Side Neighborhood Alliance has argued that, “Two million people will likely see their rents skyrocket, and will no longer have basic rights (such as a right to a lease renewal and protection against arbitrary eviction).”

On May 3 the Rent Guidelines Board held a preliminary vote on maximum rent increases for over two million rent-stabilized tenants. During the vote a number of MET activists were arrested — at a protest highlighting the rapidly-growing population of New Yorkers who have no rent protections.

* Except where prohibited by law.

In an advanced industrial society that touts itself as the most prosperous nation in the history of humankind it would seem a given that all of its people would be able to go home, to be housed appropriately, rather than having to sleep on the streets, in a shelter, in a nursing home, on an inpatient unit, in sub-standard housing — or in a jail cell. It would seem a given that housing would be acknowledged as a basic human right.

But we are not there yet.


View Photos/Videos From The Left Forum

View Photos/Videos From The Legislative Breakfast

Posted by TAG - May 12, 2011 | Editorial

Obama — and his father figure? — mourn bin Laden
Cartoon by Carlos Latuff


It recently appeared that American politics had hit an all-time low when a sitting president turned over his birth certificate to a real estate speculator with a poorly thought out combover. But then this president, a Nobel laureate, dispatched a team of assassins who killed an unarmed suspect (who was under indictment in Manhattan at the time of his execution) and dumped the body. Said president later declined to release evidence related to the execution. A constitutional scholar, the president in question is charged with defending The Document. But his continuation of Bush anti-terrorism policies, including torture, and his extrajudicial execution of a war criminal — coupled with his refusal to turn over evidence in the bin Laden affair — are troubling. In addition, Obama’s recent pronouncement that Army specialist Bradley Manning is guilty of leaking classified documents to Wikileaks — a pronouncement made before any trial — further bolsters the concerns of some observers that the chief executive officer of the United States sees himself as above the law. The hit on bin Laden boosted approval ratings for Obama at the start of his re-election campaign but will this assassination prove to be his Trump Card? Can the president circumvent the rule of law with impunity?


Obama is never going to win over his histrionic critics in the Tea Party. His domestic policies initiatives haven’t produced much besides a boondoggle for health insurance companies. So one can hardly be surprised that Obama would retreat into militarism, that he would become a war president. Elected to produce change, elected as a peace candidate — who can’t seem to find his way out of Iraq, escalated the conflict in Afghanistan and bombed Libya — Obama is now being hailed by many for his “masterstroke” in killing bin Laden. But not all observers are offering praise. Some are demanding proof that Obama’s version of what happened in the bin Laden affair is accurate. While the United Nations human rights investigators are asking for operational details to determine if bin Laden was a victim of a cold-blooded execution, a number of persons and organizations are demanding to see the photographs of bin Laden’s corpse. Right wing attorneys and groups have argued that the photographs, paid for with tax dollars, are public records. One right wing firm, Judicial Watch, has filed a FOIA request in an attempt to obtain the documents.

And it isn’t only the Tea Party and the far Right declining to celebrate Obama and his success. The man who might be described as Obama’s father figure, at least in terms of policy — former president George W. Bush — declined to appear at Ground Zero with Obama. Several news services have reported that Bush felt he didn’t get enough credit and Obama’s appearance at the former Trade Center was a “victory lap.”

Obama’s bin Laden operation is surrounded by controversy and raises a number of questions. Here are this reporter’s Top Ten:

1. Was this an “extrajudicial execution” — as described by former NLG president Marjorie Cohn (in a piece she wrote for Portside).

2. Why does the storyline seem to change over time? (the “human shield” and armed bin Laden claims have been dropped).

3. Was the ‘burial at sea’ respectful of Islamic tradition and why was this done?

4. Why withhold photographs of bin Laden when his execution is far more ‘inflammatory’ than any evidence of his demise.

5. Why was no real effort made to bring bin Laden to trial – even Goering, Eichmann and other Nazi leaders got trials.

6. Given where bin Laden was found hiding – was the U.S. paying Pakistanis NOT to find him?

7. Should the Nobel Committee withdraw its award?

8. Did torture, as DCI Leon Panetta and others have claimed, facilitate bin Laden’s capture (and assassination)?

9. Does this operation signal an Afghanistan exit strategy?

10. Is Obama trying to win Bush’s approval – as part of his search for a father-figure?

and as a bonus question:

11. Why was the codename “Geronimo” chosen when it must have been known this would offend Native Americans?


The White House initially said that bin Laden was armed and that he used his wife as a “human shield.” These claims were later dropped. Obama said bin Laden was killed “after a firefight” – Attorney General Eric Holder later said that bin Laden made no attempt to surrender and noted that bin Laden was an “enemy commander in the field” killed lawfully by soldiers on a “kill or capture” mission. United Nations human rights investigators are asking for full disclosure of operational details: “In respect of the recent use of deadly force against Osama bin Laden, the United States of America should disclose the supporting facts to allow an assessment in terms of international human rights law standards,” they said.

The Obama Administration and the Pentagon reported that bin Laden received a burial at sea with full observance of Islamic tradition. Several prominent Islamic clerics and Muslim scholars have objected to the “burial at sea” noting that an unmarked grave would have served the same purpose as dumping the body in the ocean after placing it inside a weighted bag – in terms of preventing the creation of a terrorist shrine. In Islam, burial at sea is permitted if an adherent dies while onboard a ship or in other exceptional circumstances. The Obama administration has indicated that no country would accept bin Laden’s remains. Perhaps. But there is yet another issue surrounding dumping the body in the ocean. For if it is true that dead men tell no tales – then missing bodies are particularly discreet.


The code name for the death or capture of bin Laden was “Geronimo.” Several Native American groups have cried foul – some because Geronimo was an Apache who resisted U.S. imperialism and others because the term used in this context perpetuates negative stereotypes of Native Americans as an Enemy.

“It is not the fault of a social leadership if a social regression takes place. But this social leadership consolidates regression if it: (1) tries to pass off the regression as progress, (2) proclaims itself to be the savior of the world, and (3) shoots those who remind it of its duties.” — Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism

While a variety of public figures are questioning the legality of the execution and some are demanding to see the photographs of bin Laden’s body, Senator Charles Schumer and other Democrats have implied that “rational people” must accept Obama’s version of how the hit went down — on faith. Schumer implied that anyone who doesn’t accept the official version is a “conspiracy theorist” or a “crazy.”


Disinclination to accept the official version, in lieu of any evidence, may make one a “conspiracy theorist” but it doesn’t make one irrational, a “crazy” as Schumer put it. A variety of conspiracy theories surrounding the execution of bin Laden will doubtless emerge and most will be fanciful, many will simply be wrong. But that doesn’t establish that people expressing concern and demanding to see evidence are irrational. If the President of the United States can be induced by a real estate speculator to turn over his ID, perhaps that president could understand why skeptics, critics and concerned citizens would want him to turn over all evidence pertaining to the bin Laden execution to the people he was elected to serve. But Obama is declining to turn over photos of the execution, saying that the photographs might inflame some people in the Middle East. Invading Arab countries, occupying their lands, killing civilians by “friendly fire,” and bombing Libya are not inflammatory acts? On what continuum does the documentary evidence of an act carry more emotional impact than the act itself?

Obama is a controversial and complicated, sometime contradictory, figure. He enjoys competitive sport. He’s a smoker. He’s a legal scholar. He’s a commander-in-chief who commented on a case currently before a military tribunal. He ran as a peace candidate. He escalated and initiated military interventions — without a declaration of war. He villified Bush in the election campaign but continued the Bush policies of torture, indefinite detention and targeted killing. And in a strange bit of synchronicity, Obama bombed Libya on the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and then sent a hit team to Pakistan on the anniversary of Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech – is this meaningful? Perhaps not, but Freudians must be having a field day – the “accidental” anniversary dates coupled with the militaristic, authoritarian president (whose stepfather was very harsh and punitive) in search of a father figure, a president who arguably infanitilizes his subjects (by withholding gruesome photographs) is a treasure trove for psychologists seeking to understand historical motivations. The political bottom line: Obama turned over a birth certificate to an individual with no legal standing — publishing the birth certificate on the White House website, no less. But he refuses to turn over evidence to the American people after ordering a hit team to conduct a summary execution of a terrorist who has influenced U.S. domestic and foreign policy in a way few individuals ever have.

The Osama execution was a major triumph for Obama but will this assassination be enough to secure a second term? For the moment it is a trump card – a card he played shortly after launching his re-election campaign. Many on the Left have argued that the demise of bin Laden has provided Obama with a rationale for finally pulling out of Afghanistan. Will he use it? If so the execution may ultimately be about more than vengeance or October Surprises. But as yet there is no word from the White House about ending the decade-long military intervention in Afghanistan. Also troubling is the fact that many in Pakistan are upset that the U.S. violated their national sovereignty. In the U.S. a number of politicians have questioned why Pakistan did not know that bin Laden had all but appeared in the local phone book. In short, there are many ways Obama can come out a loser in this affair, despite his present standing in the polls.

Obama’s Bigfoot-print?
Comment from The Guardian

NLN researcher Tom Miles spotted an interesting comment on the Guardian’s website. In response to an article about the execution of bin Laden and Obama’s refusal to provide any proof that substantiates the official version, one reader challenged the “take it on faith” argument when he wrote:

“I killed Bigfoot and I identified him with DNA. Then I threw his body in the ocean.”

Given the air of mystery surrounding the assassination and the many questions raised, it would be nice to have something tangible, something in the way of evidence. And so one has to wonder how Obama would respond if Donald Trump were to request the bin Laden photos. And while he’s got the President’s ear, perhaps Trump could ask him to bring the troops home.

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — May 1, 2011. On May Day hundreds of immigrant workers observed the international workers’ holiday by protesting what they called, “Exploitative and abusive employers in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island.”

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

The action, organized by Make The Road New York, was one of three simultaneous events. In Manhattan, protesters gathered at the upscale West Village restaurant “Veranda” where employees are owed $159,000 in unpaid wages, tips, damages and interest. In Brooklyn, protesters picketed outside the Sea Town Fish and Meat Market where one of their number worked 60 hours a week without overtime pay — worse yet, this employee earned less than the New York State minimum wage. And on Staten Island, protesters rallied at the Chirag Indian Restaurant where a dishwasher was paid $200 for a 70 hour work week.

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

The protesters were buoyed by a new state law, which took effect on April 9, 2011. Drafted by Make The Road attorneys and introduced by State Senator Diane Savino, the “Wage Theft Prevention Act” increases damages workers may collect from 25 percent to 100 percent (of unpaid wages), allows victims of retaliatory firings and other acts to collect up to $10,000 per incident, and gives the Department of Labor the right to require business owners to post violation notices.

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Armed with the legislative tool, and a cooperative mother nature, the protesters on Staten Island rallied at the restaurant and then marched to the Port Richmond office of the Make The Road NY. The three mile trek was a lively one, with lots of drumming, chanting and smiling faces. A number of locals came out of their homes to watch as the protest passed by — smiling at the children who were having a good time as they enjoyed the Spring weather. Over 100 participants took part and the multigenerational group — some in strollers — gave the event a family feel.

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Outside their Port Richmond office, Make The Road organizers handed out press packets that included a statement from Jesus Juarez – reminding onlookers that, despite the happy faces, there was a serious issue being addressed by the march.

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

In his statement, Juarez said that, “Acqi en Staten Island, casi cada persona que yo conozco ha sido victima del robo de salario de alguna manera u otra.”

“Y hoy estamos aqui para decir a todos los negocios del area que hay que respetar los derechos de los trabajadores — porque ahora contamos con el apoyo de la ley de prevencion de robo de salarios. Tenemos que decir que robo es robo,” he said.

[ “Here in Staten Island, almost every person I know has been a victim of wage theft in one way or another.”

“Today we are here to tell businesses in the area that they must respect the rights of workers — because now we have the assistance of the Wage Theft Prevention Act. We are here to say that stealing is stealing.” ]

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

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