At U.N. meeting in Geneva
U.S. gov’t cited for New Orleans housing crisis
By LeiLani Dowell Published Mar 9, 2008 8:15 PM
In the midst of the ongoing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a joint statement by two United Nations advisers—one on housing, one on minority rights—has called on the U.S. government to stop the demolition of public housing in New Orleans and defend the human rights of the city’s Black residents and internally displaced persons.
The statement was issued by Miloon Kothari, the special rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and Gay McDougall, the independent expert on minority issues, during a meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva.
The declaration cited the lack of consultation with the affected communities regarding the demolition of public housing developments, the increasing cost of rents and mortgages, and reports showing more than 12,000 homeless in the New Orleans metropolitan area. “These demolitions, therefore, could effectively deny thousands of African-American residents their right to return to housing from which they were displaced by the hurricane,” they stated. (UN News Service, Feb. 28)
Although “the authorities claim that the demolition of public housing is not intentionally discriminatory,” (Associated Press, Feb. 29) Kothari and McDougall stated, “The disproportionate impact on poorer and predominantly African-American residents and former residents would result in the denial of internationally recognized human rights.” (UN News Service, Feb. 28)
A delegation of more than 100 activists, organized by the U.S. Human Rights Network (www.ushrnetwork.org) under the leadership of Ajamu Baraka had traveled to Geneva to challenge the U.S. government’s report to the U.N. monitoring body. The delegation included a group of organizers focused on the rights of Katrina survivors and internally displaced people. Other delegates included Kali Akuno, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and People’s Hurricane Relief Fund; Mayaba Liebenthal, Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence; Monique Harden, Advocates from Environmental Human Rights (AEHR); Brenda Stokely, NYC Katrina/Rita Solidarity Committee; and Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU-NO (New Orleans).
Kothari and McDougall’s statement was issued two weeks after tests revealed that formaldehyde fumes in FEMA trailers and mobile homes, used to house survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, were at toxic levels. The chemical preservative, which is commonly used in construction, was classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2004.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Feb. 14 that tests conducted on 519 trailers and mobile homes revealed fumes that were, on average, five times higher than the exposure in modern homes. More than 35,000 survivors currently reside in these facilities.
According to the Associated Press, “The formaldehyde levels in some trailers were found to be high enough to cause breathing problems in children, the elderly or people who already have respiratory trouble, CDC Director Julie Gerberding said. About 5 percent had levels high enough to cause breathing problems even in people who do not ordinarily have respiratory trouble, she said.” (Feb. 15)
FEMA officials had ignored complaints by trailer occupants—beginning as far back as 2006—of a series of ailments, including nosebleeds, difficulty breathing and headaches. Now it says it is rushing to, once again, find temporary housing for these survivors before the summer makes the fumes worse.