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. But, 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.” Moreover, 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 and again in 2019.


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.


"The Rent Eats First" is a journalism project that examines the symptoms and causes of the housing crisis in New York City and the US. It was created by students from the United Nations International School (UNIS) and KIPP NYC College Prep in the Bronx who took part in the 2018 UNIS Human Rights Project. 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.


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 2018 project was made possible thanks to a generous grant from Teaching Tolerance.


UNIS Human Rights Project 2018

Investigating housing injustice in New York City