Housing shapes our lives in critical ways. The benefits of stable housing can be so powerful that they have been compared to a vaccine that benefits our physical and mental health. Housing location is the strongest predictor of life expectancy. A person's zip code predicts not only their health, but also the level of segregation and poverty in their neighborhood, the funding for schools and the community's experiences with the criminal justice system.
The need for a place to live is universal. Safe and decent housing is a human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing 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." Housing rights are also protected in numerous international treaties and in national, state and city laws.
For millions throughout the US, the experience of affordable, stable and adequate housing is precarious at best. Homelessness, eviction, displacement, harassment, overcrowding and disrepair are increasingly common experiences.
In New York City, the housing crisis is so extreme that it has been referred to as a "humanitarian emergency" which is “man-made and shaped by a combination of forces that have led to a large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes.” Those most impacted by the crisis are Black and Hispanic residents, families with children, the elderly, the disabled and low-income households.
The most visible symptoms of New York City's lack of affordable housing are the record numbers of homeless people. By the end of 2018, over 63,000 people were sleeping in City shelters and between 3000 and 7000 were sleeping on the street each night.
But the crisis manifests itself in other ways. 44% of New Yorkers spend more than 30% of their household income on rent and are forced to forego basic necessities like food, medicine and utilities. In some cases, the choice is between “heat” or “eat.”
As rent-stabilized apartments vanish and gentrification intensifies, thousands of New Yorkers have been displaced from their communities. In 2016, there were over 36,000 evictions in the city.
Thousands more New Yorkers live in overcrowded, unsafe buildings, with broken elevators, mold, and other pests that negatively affect their health. Years of mismanagement and disinvestment have led to a crisis in public housing, leading to the New York City Public Housing Agency (NYCHA) being named the city's worst landlord in 2018.
While the causes of and solutions to the affordable housing crisis are widely debated, three things are clear: in the last thirty years, the cost of housing has skyrocketed, personal incomes have stagnated and government policies have failed to adequately address these realities.
Throughout the summer of 2018, students from UNIS and KIPP College Prep in the Bronx spent three intensive weeks investigating housing injustice in New York City. They traveled throughout the city to meet with tenant organizers, service providers, academics, advocates and activists working on issues related to housing and human rights. They also listened to and transcribed the stories of people living in homeless shelters, as well as of those who have been displaced, evicted and harassed by landlords in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Most importantly, they learned about the ways in which those affected by NYC’s housing crisis are organizing to make decent and affordable housing a human right.
Click here for an online version of their culmination photojournalism project "The Rent Eats First." The title was inspired by Matthew Desmond's use of the phrase in his Pulitzer prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Thanks to a generous donation from Penguin Random House, all participants read and discussed the books throughout the program. The project was made possible thanks to a generous grant from Teaching Tolerance.
Video credit: Jamahl Richardson