Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Endless Rights and Endless Obligations

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in late 2005, about 5,000 families lived in public housing. Following the storm, rather than replace housing developments that many argued had become concentrations of crime and chronic poverty, the officials of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would replace those developments with mixed-income housing.  Advocates of public housing staged angry protests, arguing that the government was using the hurricane as an excuse to get rid of the poorest residents. The protestors lost that campaign, though. Today, about two-thirds of those pre-Katrina families now live in public housing.  There are some reports that the lives of those who remain may be better than before. Violent crime, however, has not declined. Some New Orleans policemen have suggested to me that this may be because the displacement of violence-prone young men created turf wars.  We cannot know whether this situation would be even worse if the wards of the state had been moved around while renovating the old developments. But for the protestors, the issue was not whether the concerned agencies made the best decisions about what to do with a dependent population. It was about the putative rights of people to demand that they be given resources.
Loyola Law Professor Bill Quigley, a long-time activist, was one of the leading opponents of housing change. Quigley vociferously maintained that housing is a basic human right and that those who were losing their free and subsidized housing were being denied their rights. I thought this was a puzzling claim. As I look at the U.S. Constitution, I can see no guarantees of a right to shelter. We may want to try to provide homes for the homeless on humanitarian grounds.  We may want to pursue an economy that will give people the opportunity to purchase or rent decent lodgings. But to say that people have the right to housing, regardless of their ability to pay, is to say that someone else must give them housing. Those paying the bills cannot raise any questions about the kind of shelter or how many people will receive the benefits. The recipients have all the rights. The providers have only obligations.
Professor Quigley and his associates are now apparently unwilling to limit this extraordinary extension of rights to our local community or even to our country.  Haiti also suffered a major disaster in 2010. This week, a visiting activist will join with Quigley to demand that the U.S. government not only guarantee housing, as a basic right, to everyone in this country, but also send funding to the government of Haiti to supply this basic right in that sovereign nation.  This is not a call for American religious and charitable organizations to become more involved in helping our fellow humans in the Caribbean. It is an assertion that the right to receive U.S. tax-payer supplied resources extends to people beyond U.S. borders. If so, why stop at Haiti? Surely every person on the planet has the same basic rights. Don’t ask whether trying to guarantee adequate housing to everyone in the world would wreck the American economy.  Rights cannot be questioned.

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