Housing Rights Initiative

house and skylineThe Housing Rights Initiative is based out of Miami Law’s Human Rights Program and is founded and directed by Faculty Director Tamar Ezer. Projects focus on challenging the criminalization of poverty and marginalization, realizing the right to housing, and advancing women’s economic empowerment.

Advocacy

Challenging the Criminalization of Poverty & Marginalization

Throughout the globe, petty offenses, such as loitering laws, are used to exert social control. In Africa, laws against “vagrancy,” being a “rogue or vagabond,” “loitering,” “wandering,” and “idleness” are used to target unpopular groups, such as the poor, migrants, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and sex workers and to justify “sweeping exercises,” or mass arrests to get unwanted people off the streets. In the United States and locally in Miami, the use of petty offenses to criminalize poverty is a critical issue where people experiencing homelessness regularly face the threat of criminal sanctions for fulfilling basic needs.

The Housing Rights Initiative works to challenge the criminalization of poverty and marginalization. In June 2021, the Human Rights Clinic filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in the case of Blake v. City of Grants Pass, highlighting that punishing homelessness through the imposition of fines and fees for life-sustaining activities violates international human rights law. The brief was filed in collaboration with the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC) and Leilani Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing and Global Director of The Shift. The brief specifically focuses on violations of the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and argues that a human rights analysis should inform interpretation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, which hinges on “evolving standards of decency.” The brief concludes by noting that the U.S.’s failure to recognize the right to adequate housing is at the root of punishment for homelessness. Please find a web story and Human Rights at Home Blog with additional information.

The Clinic is further collaborating with DePaul University and Nerd Lab, NHLC, and the Fines & Fees Justice Center to develop a series of virtual, interactive simulations highlighting how fines and fees in the U.S. justice system perpetuate poverty. The simulations require players to role play with the goal of generating empathy around the impossible binds current laws and policies place people. In April 2021, Clinic students piloted these simulations with local high school students at the Cushman School, leading a session on the criminalization of poverty.

In June 2020, the Clinic submitted a comment providing a human rights analysis of the problems with a proposed ordinance in Miami that would criminalize food sharing, or the feeding of people experiencing homelessness in large groups in public places without a permit and at non-designated feeding locations (with only 5 inconvenient locations designated). The Clinic further published an article on a human rights approach to address racial injustice in the criminalization of homelessness.

In April 2019, the Clinic filed a submission with the African Court of Human and Peoples Rights on the gender impacts of vagrancy laws, in collaboration with Lawyers Alert-Nigeria. The submission considered the colonial roots of vagrancy laws and examined how they facilitate discriminatory policing of gender norms, provide a cover for officer-perpetrated gender-based violence, and stifle economic development based on gender identity and expression. Please find a web story with additional information at Clinic Addresses Gender Impacts of Vagrancy Laws Before African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

December 2020, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a positive decision, finding vagrancy laws incompatible with human rights standards in both their formulation and application. Specifically, these laws violate rights to non-discrimination and equality, dignity, liberty, a fair trial, freedom of movement, and protection of family, as well as state obligations towards women and children, requiring states to amend or repeal all vagrancy laws, by-laws, and regulations. Addressing violations against women, the Court referred to the Clinic’s submission and noted that “vagrancy laws perpetrate multiple violations of the rights of poor and marginalised women” and “effectively, punish the poor and underprivileged, including but not limited to the homeless, the disabled, the gender-nonconforming, sex workers, hawkers, street vendors, and individuals who otherwise use public spaces to earn a living.” Please also find a web story discussing this decision.

Realizing the Right to Housing

The Housing Rights Initiative works to realize the right to housing. Please find a factsheet on the international human rights to adequate housing in English and Spanish.

Additionally, the Human Rights Clinic developed factsheets on the intersection of housing and homelessness with COVID-19, racial justice, and gender, including the experiences of women and the LGBTQ community.

In June 2020, the Clinic submitted a report to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing on informal settlements and homelessness in the context of COVID-19, and in May 2020, the Miami Herald published the Clinic's Op-Ed on homelessness and COVID-19.

In October 2019, the Clinic submitted a report on housing and homelessness in Miami-Dade County, Florida as part of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of the U.S. by the U.N. Human Rights Council (please see an HRC factsheet on the Universal Periodic Review process). The report provides a human rights analysis of the criminalization of homelessness, access to health services, and access to housing, as well as provides recommendations to address these issues. Please find a web story on this advocacy at Clinic Submits Four Reports to the United Nations Alleging Violations in the U.S. The Clinic additionally developed a factsheet on Housing and Homelessness in Miami-Dade County.

Additionally, Miami Law has a Tenants’ Rights Clinic, where students represent low-income tenants in litigation and administrative hearings under the guidance of Clinic Director Jeffrey Hearne. Cases primarily involve evictions from public and subsidized housing, terminations of Section 8, and denial of affordable housing applications.

Women’s Economic Empowerment

The Housing Rights Initiative works to advance women’s economic empowerment, including access to land, property, and housing.

The Human Rights Clinic has partnered with IWRAW-AP (International Women’s Rights-Action Watch), SALC (Southern African Litigation Centre), ISLA (Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa), and KELIN (Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS) to organize a judicial colloquium on women’s economic rights and access to justice in Eastern and Southern Africa. In preparation for the colloquium, the Clinic developed the following background documents: a White Paper on international and regional human rights standards and interpretations on women’s equality and economic rights, an Appendix with relevant constitutional provisions in Eastern and Southern Africa, a Case Compendium with summaries of important judicial decisions in Eastern and Southern Africa, and a Mapping of judicial officers and advocates in Eastern and Southern Africa who have been instrumental in advancing women’s economic rights and access to justice.

The Clinic further advocates for housing protections for domestic violence survivors. In February 2014, the Clinic submitted comments to the Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development’s Proposed Policies for Section 8 Housing and the Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy, recommending expanded housing protections for domestic violence survivors and citing Miami-Dade County’s Resolution declaring freedom from domestic violence a fundamental human right (which the Clinic helped to draft in 2012). In April 2014, Clinic student, Charlotte Cassel, testified before the Miami-Dade Board of Commissioners, reiterating these recommendations.

The Clinic’s suggestions were incorporated into the sections on domestic violence in Miami-Dade County’s Public Housing and Community Development’s FY 2014-15 Public Housing Agency Plan, Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy, and Section 8 Administrative Plan. For instance, the Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy states on page 131: “Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and Miami-Dade County Resolution…PHCD is required to implement internal policies to include provisions for protections of victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, sexual battery and stalking.”

This builds on work by Professor Tamar Ezer with the Open Society Foundations advocating for women’s property rights in the context of HIV. Please see Securing Women’s Land and Property Rights: A Critical Step to Address HIV, Violence, and Food Security and Tools for Change: Applying UN Standards to Secure Women’s Housing, Land, and Property Rights in the Context of HIV.

Convenings

  • Strategy Meeting on Realizing the Rights to Food, Health and Housing in the U.S.: On November 12-13, 2020, the Human Rights Clinic and Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights hosted a National Strategy Meeting on Realizing the Rights to Food, Health and Housing in the U.S. that brought together advocates and scholars to share strategies and experiences for realizing the rights to housing, health, and food. The meeting provided participants with the opportunity to jointly strategize on cross-cutting issues. For the meeting, the HRC developed factsheets in English and Spanish on the international human rights to food, housing and health. For more information about this meeting, please see the meeting agenda and report, as well as a Human Rights at Home blog and web story.
     
  • Petty Offenses Symposium: Challenging Criminalization of Poverty, Marginalization, and Gender Non-Conformity: In September 2019, the Human Rights Clinic hosted a global Symposium on Petty Offenses: Challenging Criminalization of Poverty, Marginalization, and Gender Non-Conformity in collaboration with the University of Miami (UM) Law Review, UM Race and Social Justice Law Review, UM School of Communication, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the Open Society Foundations’ Human Rights Initiative. The symposium provided an opportunity for the sharing of experiences and strategies in challenging petty offenses, exploring the use of litigation; human rights advocacy at international, regional, national, and local levels; and creative campaigning. The symposium drew on work from Ghana, Guinea, Guyana, Hungary, India, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, and the United States and facilitated joint strategizing across movements, issues, and countries. It featured a photography exhibit. Please find a report on the symposium, including translations into French and Portuguese, a special issue of the UM Law Review, capturing lessons and reflections, and a blog on the symposium with the Human Rights at Home Blog series. Interviews from various speakers at the symposium further resulted in development of a video on “Why It’s Time to Repeal Petty Offense Laws."
     
  • Communications Workshop: A communications workshop prior to the Petty Offenses Symposium, hosted with the University of Miami School of Communication, provided an opportunity for advocates to strengthen communication strategies and creative campaigning to complement legal advocacy. At the workshop, advocates developed a shared hashtag for work in this area: #PoorNotGuilty. This then led to development of the PoorNotGuilty website, providing resources for a global movement to decriminalize poverty and petty offenses.

Scholarship

Faculty and student scholarship addressing housing rights includes:

Housing and Homelessness

Blogs & Op-Eds:

Women’s Economic Empowerment

Blogs:

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