Shelter the Displaced Among Us

By Jill Jacobs and Noah Leavitt

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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On Monday, residents of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing development appeared in federal court, charging the Chicago Housing Authority with violating international human rights standards prohibiting forced evictions.

For the first time, human rights laws on displacement are being used to contest the eviction of public housing residents in the United States. Now on trial is America’s commitment to use international law to protect its own citizens.

The Cabrini-Green residents are fighting for the assurance that they will not suddenly become homeless at the whim of the landlord, in this case the Chicago Housing Authority. So far, evictions by the authority have forced thousands of public housing residents into homelessness or insufficient housing.

Over the past five years, the housing authority has been steadily tearing down public housing as part of Chicago’s “Plan for Transformation,” which aims to replace public housing high rises with low-rise, mixed income developments. By September 2004, more than 16,000 units of public housing will have been demolished; fewer than 10% of these units have been replaced. There are no immediate plans to relocate the 385 families who will be displaced as a result of the demolition, slated for this fall, of seven buildings in the Cabrini-Green development.

Since the Plan for Transformation’s inception, more than 260 families have sought emergency shelter after being forced to leave public housing. Others have been pushed into the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with little chance of returning to their former communities in the foreseeable future. Most families leaving public housing are being re-segregated into other very-low income African-American neighborhoods where the condition of the housing is not that much better than that of the housing projects these residents have left. All this has happened at a time when more than 55,000 Chicago families are already on the waiting list for public housing.

In addition to violating the housing authority’s own commitment to replace demolished housing units, the evictions of Chicago housing residents represent a breach of international law.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which the United States is a signatory, “recognize[s] the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living… including adequate… housing.” (Article 11[1]) This right to housing, as clarified by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, prohibits mass, planned, forced displacement of individuals against their will, particularly when their displacement will result in homelessness. (General Comment No. 7) Chicago’s evictions of public housing tenants have already forced hundreds of families into homelessness, and future evictions will almost certainly have the same effect.

Furthermore, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, signed and ratified by the United States, prohibits actions with respect to housing that have the effect of discriminating against people of color. (Article 5[e][iii]) In Chicago, virtually all of the tenants being evicted from public housing are African American, and the evictions, which force residents out of more integrated areas and into minority neighborhoods, have the effect of further segregating one of America’s five most segregated cities.

While the case is treading new legal ground in international jurisprudence, rabbinic law includes a large body of opinion on the displacement of tenants. Much of the rabbinic law relating to the landlord-tenant relationship focuses on the question of when and how a landlord may terminate a tenant’s lease.

The Talmud establishes the general rule that “one who rents a house to another in the winter cannot evict this tenant between Sukkot and Passover. One who rents a house during the summer cannot evict the tenant for thirty days.” Explaining the distinction between the rules for winter and summer, the text continues: “In the summer, one can rent houses, but in the winter, it is hard to find houses to rent.” (Tractate Bava Metzia 101b) The Talmud is primarily concerned with the ability of the displaced tenant to find another place to live. A landlord is forbidden to evict a tenant who is likely to become homeless as a result of the eviction.

Later commentators further limit a landlord’s ability to evict a tenant. In the 11th century, Rashi extended the prohibition against wintertime evictions even to tenants holding 30-day leases, which according to the letter of the law can be renewed or canceled at the end of any month. According to Rashi, for the entire winter the landlord must renew this monthly lease and may not raise the rent. The Tur, a 14th-century law code, specifies that even a landlord whose own home falls down, or who becomes poor and therefore needs to sell the rented house, may not evict a tenant prematurely. (Choshen Mishpat 312) Other laws, both in the Talmud and in later writings, even compel a landlord to rebuild a rented building that has fallen down or become unlivable.

Both Jewish and international law seek to ensure housing security for all tenants. Chicago’s efforts to demolish public housing eliminate the sense of security that tenants should expect, and threaten to leave hundreds more families homeless or insufficiently housed.

The situation in Chicago is just the most dramatic example of a nationwide trend that threatens to displace thousands of residents. The outcome of the Cabrini-Green case will have repercussions for cities across the country, dozens of which already have begun demolishing public housing developments in response to changes in federal funding policy.

The United States, as a signatory to international human rights treaties on displacement, has an obligation to prevent the eviction of public housing tenants. The Jewish community, guided by rabbinic laws protecting tenants, has a parallel obligation to oppose attempted evictions.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is director of outreach and education for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Noah Leavitt is director of advocacy for the Chicago-based council.

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