Washington, DC: a human rights city?

Below are some initial reflections on the work I’ve been doing in Washington DC on the human right to housing. They are not terribly substantive and serve as much as a tribute and thank you to those who hosted me as disquisition on the topic. But I wanted to post the piece for those who might be interested in my broader project, or what’s going on in Washington DC. Enjoy.

In December 2008 Washington DC was declared a human rights city. The DC City Council passed the resolution, pushed for by the American Friends Service Committee. While this is a lovely idea, it leaves one wondering what does it mean to be a human rights city. In particular, what does it mean in a city defined by inequality, where more than 15,000 citizens do not have homes, where 20% of the population lives in poverty, where housing is more unaffordable than anywhere in the United States, and where public and affordable housing is under constant threat. Perhaps the declaration of DC as a human rights city would seem less cynical if the DC City Council or the Federal Government had shown themselves committed to protecting the human rights of residents of the District, particularly the right to housing.

Housing is a Human Right

Human rights promise us many things. The right to housing, however, is perhaps the most fundamental. What do our rights mean if we do not have a place to call home? Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises 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.

The right to housing is fundamental because it is in our homes that we find the space to rest, to pursue wellness, to find love, to raise families, and build communities, to collect our energy and thoughts so that we can participate in democratic politics, and it is where we find the safety, security and privacy that make a dignified life possible.

I came to Washington DC this August to study what the human right to housing means in the District, in the United States, and globally. My studies brought me here to learn about the struggles for secure, accessible, and decent housing. And those studies have brought me to the One DC office on S Street in the Shaw neighbourhood.

One DC Building

If we look at the actions of politicians, developers, and landlords it is hard to take the claim that DC is a human rights city very seriously. This, however, would be to miss the most important work being done in the District and the best reason to be hopeful that DC might become a model of human rights fulfillment. In my short two weeks at One DC, as I listened and learned from staff, volunteers, members and residents, I saw dedicated and brave individuals struggling to make the District a human rights city worthy of the title.

One DC’s work is not limited to claiming a right to housing, but it was this work that I observed and learned about while I was here. And the work that the organization is doing is difficult and demanding, but absolutely vital.

While at One DC I was privileged to meet the residents and volunteers that ensured the right of return for the families displaced from Kelsey Gardens, who won the right to return to the new Jefferson at Market Place development nearly 10 years after their homes were destroyed. I also learned about the struggle over public land in the District, particularly Parcel 33 and Parcel 42 in the Shaw, which One DC fought for, trying to secure affordable housing for long-time residents. Today Progression Place has dedicated affordable units, and the planned development for Parcel 42 includes affordable units as well.

These are important victories and One DC should be proud of the effect their efforts have had. But the measure of the organization’s dedication to real human rights change in DC is seen in the distance between these victories and the ends that One DC pursues. The organization has a more challenging and profound vision of what a just DC should look like. Most importantly, One DC is working towards empowering residents, empowering the community in the Shaw and the District to know and claim their rights. It is this work that begins to make DC a human rights city, as organizing working-class and low-income communities of color and helping them build the power necessary to claim and protect their own rights is at the core of what human rights mean.

One of many new developments in the Shaw area

Human rights are not primarily guarantees from governments. They are much more than privileges granted by the powerful. Oppressed communities have always been at the forefront of human rights. It was the enslaved people of Haiti that made the first truly universal declaration of rights, when they defeated the French empire and declared the freedom of all human beings, not just white Christian men who owned property. It was the anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and the United States that secured legal and political equality in those countries. And today it is brave women and men of color in Brazil, India, South Africa and the United States – in cities like Washington DC, Mumbai, Chicago and Cape Town – that are on the front line of the fight for the human right to housing. One DC carries on this tradition, a tradition that understands that human rights are not requests for mercy or sympathy from the powerful, but are demands that build the power of the people and use that power to reconstruct our communities in the image of greater justice.

I was lucky to see this work in progress as One DC worked with the residents of Lincoln Westmoreland II (recently rebranded Heritage at Shaw Station) who are facing uncertainty as the building owner has ceased his participation in HUD’s section 8 program. The residents have a chance to fight the displacement that has changed the neighborhood so dramatically over the past twenty years and improve their community – One DC’s support of that effort is vital. If Washington DC is going to be a human rights city then it needs One DC and its dedicated supporters, as well as more organizations and individuals with a similar commitment to building the power of the residents of the city so that they can realize their human right to housing.

The rebranded Lincoln Westmoreland 2 building

I am grateful for the hospitality extended to me by One DC. To name names, special thanks are owed to Claire Cook, Ka Flewellen, Tim Kumfer, Virgina Lee, and Linette Robinson for agreeing to be interviewed. And thanks are also due to Alison Basile, Reece Chenault, Nkechi Fester, N’ya Finley, Ai’yinah Ford, Rosemary Ndubuizu, and Pat Penny for welcoming me warmly during my visit. Finally, though I suspect he would not want to be singled out, I am grateful to Dominic Moulden for supporting my visit, ensuring that it was productive, stimulating and enjoyable – thank you for allowing me to live, listen and learn from One DC during my all too short visit.

Political Organising

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