Exposing the lack of human rights in cities

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Pictured is a man holding a cardboard paper with the words “HUMAN RIGHTS” written on it in brown marker. Human rights, while its always talked about, isn’t always affordably supported. The U of P (University of Pittsburgh) argued that the privatization of the housing market has an adverse effect on human rights. Photo credit to Sora Shimakazi

Cities that can’t afford to provide affordable housing often turn to private companies and investors for a solution. However, Jackie Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, argues in a virtual presentation on Friday that the privatization of the housing market actually has an adverse effect on the housing crisis and ultimately, on human rights.  

“There’s a whole lot of knowledge about privatization and public-private partnerships and basically how they are really terrible,” Smith said. “That they don’t work, they don’t help poor people, they exacerbate existing inequalities and they offer all kinds of room for corruption.” 

Smith said that redlining in Pittsburgh is gentrifying its residents. Minorities are being pushed to the surrounding towns of Pittsburgh, many of which are racist, according to Smith. This data is not something new, and there has been a pattern of people being pushed to communities that don’t have a structure for them. Through her research, she is trying to make sure that peoples’ rights to be in, return to and stay in a city are respected. 

“THERE’S A WHOLE LOT OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT PRIVATIZATION AND PUBLIC-PRIVATE RELATIONSHIPS AND BASICALLY HOW THEY ARE REALLY TERRIBLE. THAT THEY DON’T WORK, THEY DON’T HELP POOR PEOPLE, THEY EXACERBATE EXISTING INEQUALITIES AND TEHY OFFER ALL KINDS OF ROOM FOR CORRUPTION.”

Jackie Smith

“It was really interesting to see how you could really confront some of the racist assumptions in a lot of mainstream U.S. discourses with a human rights frame, and bring people together in different ways and build different kinds of solidarity around the place and claim to a space and a common struggle,” Smith said. 

Smith found that due to the lack of transparency in private companies, money put into projects produces insufficient results. She adds that this is especially because cities are prioritized for economic growth and profit. Private companies rebuild affordable housing and end up rebuilding a residential area with fewer living units or charging extra for building costs. Smith argued that the current laissez-faire economic system is not at all free because states and corporations are involved in creating inequalities. Smith stated that property rights allow for people to be excluded.  

“We’re asking people to really create a new system,” Smith said. “Cities that were designed for capital are not designed for people, and that’s the cause of all these crises. So, how do we rebuild the cities and get from where we are now to where we need to be?” 

“IT WAS REALLY INTERESTING TO SEE HOW YOU COULD REALLY CONFRONT SOME OF THE RACIST ASSUMPTIONS IN A LOT OF MAINSTREAM U.S. DISCOURSES WITH A HUMAN RIGHTS FRAME, AND BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER IN DIFFERENT WAYS AND BUILD DIFFERENT KINDS OF SOLIDARITY AROUND THE PLACE AND CLAIM TO A SPACE AND A COMMON STRUGGLE.”

Jackie Smith

She proposed several ideas to minimize the growing housing crisis. For example, she proposed increasing public forums, social housing, non-profit housing, transparency and housing advocates, and spreading media and power to communities. Smith mentioned that city and university partnerships and communication can also make a positive impact on the housing market in a city. She emphasized that with the housing crisis, it’s important to have a collaborative effort to build and grow together to work on human rights. 

“What’s exciting about human rights in the city project is that you can invite people to think about what a city would look like if people were prioritized, if the needs of residents were taken seriously,” Smith said. “So, expanding [the] political and legal imagination of residents is the key thing that human rights organizers can do — and by busting these myths of market ideologies, we can create a place where human rights [are] a priority.” 

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