Saturday, January 7, 2012

American Paradox: 18.5 Million Vacant Homes and 3.5 Million Homeless

Housing: It’s a Wonderful Right

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This is usually one of my favorite times of the year – the holidays are approaching, the aromas of cinnamon, orange and cranberry are in the air and it’s time to rest and watch old movies on TV. One of those old movies invariably on at this time of year still resonates today — It’s a Wonderful Life. In this 1946 Jimmy Stewart film, a small town in crisis comes together to prevent George Bailey, the benevolent loan man, from being imprisoned at the behest of the millionaire slum landlord Mr. Potter.

In the last few days, the U.S. government census figures have revealed that 1 in 2 Americans have fallen into poverty or are struggling to live on low incomes. And we know that the financial hardships faced by our neighbors, colleagues, and others in our communities will be all the more acutely felt over the holiday season.

Along with poverty and low incomes, the foreclosure rate has created its own crisis situation as the number of families removed from their homes has skyrocketed.

Since 2007, banks have foreclosed around eight million homes. It is estimated that another eight to ten million homes will be foreclosed before the financial crisis is over. This approach to resolving one part of the financial crisis means many, many families are living without adequate and secure housing. In addition, approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless, many of them veterans. It is worth noting that, at the same time, there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the country.

The stark realities that persist mean that millions of families will be facing the holidays in temporary homes, or homes under threat, and far too many children will be wishing for an end to the uncertainty and distress their family is facing rather than an Xbox or Barbie doll.

Housing is a basic human need and a fundamental human right. Yet every day in the United States, banks are foreclosing on more than 10,000 mortgages and ordering evictions of individuals and families residing in foreclosed homes. The U.S. government’s steps to address the foreclosure crisis to date have been partial at best.

The depth and severity of the foreclosure crisis is a clear illustration of the urgent need for the U.S. government to put in place a system that respects, protects and fulfills human rights, including the right to housing. This includes implementing real protections to ensure that other actors, such as financial institutions, do not undermine or abuse human rights.

Please join the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and Amnesty International in asking the U.S. to step up its efforts to address the foreclosure crisis, including by giving serious consideration to the growing call for a foreclosure moratorium and other forms of relief for those at risk, and establishing a housing finance system that fulfills human rights obligations.

As we think back on all that Amnesty has achieved over the last year in advancing and protecting human rights, let’s do one more thing. This holiday, let’s join together like George Bailey’s friends to advance the right to housing because, apart from all the other good reasons to do so: “Housing: It’s a Wonderful Right.”

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