Housing in America: a Basic Human Right
By Barbara Buehler

Housing in America is a basic right of every man, woman, and child. It is heartbreaking and shameful that we have gone so far away from our beautiful beginning purpose stated in the Declaration of Independence-to secure for everyone "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." 

That today, in a country with so much wealth, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, live in cardboard boxes on city sidewalks, sleep in doorways, on park benches, look for food in garbage cans, beg for money on America's streets, and have even frozen to death on some of the most expensive real estate in the world, is a disgrace. I know I represent many Americans in my shame that our government is so inhuman to the lives of the citizens of our land. 

I am a planner with the New York City Department of City Planning, where I have worked for over 25 years. I have seen firsthand the shameful results of the massive cuts in federal funding for housing programs-from $46.3 billion in 1976 (HUD budget authority) to an estimated year 2000 allocation of $2.7 billion (FY2000 U.S. budget), a 94 percent drop-while throughout the 1990s corporations have been getting increasingly large tax breaks and subsidies. 

Time magazine's special report on "Corporate Welfare," (published November 9, 1998) put the figure at $125 billion. Meanwhile the number of homeless families in New York City has increased, from 1980 to 1994, over 500 percent, according to Ralph da Costa Nunez's The New Poverty: Homeless Families in America

Currently, there is no money for public housing construction in New York City. And programs that assist people in being able to afford housing, including Section 8 vouchers and certificates, so widely used in New York, are pitifully inadequate. None address the fact that housing is not a luxury, it is a basic human right. No one should have to worry about whether or not they can afford a home. 

A different philosophy

Aesthetic Realism, the education founded in 1941 by Eli Siegel, the historian, poet, and critic, has shown that the only reason homelessness is allowed to exist in our rich land is because a person's need for a home is seen as a means of someone else making profit. This is contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." 

Contempt, he said, is the very basis of our brutally unjust economic system, where the labor of men and women and their need for food and housing are used to make as much money as possible for a few owners and stockholders. Beginning in 1970, Mr. Siegel convincingly showed that the profit system has failed and the only way our economy can flourish is if it is based on good will, on respect for the lives and well being of people. 

Ellen Reiss, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, makes clear how contempt is the cause of homelessness as she writes in the international journal, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known: "The fundamental question about housing is: Should a person make a profit from the need of another person to have a home, shelter, a place to live? Should our ability to have a home depend on whether we can provide a profit for somebody? Does Marissa, age 5, have the right to look from her bed at night at walls that are decently made, a floor that does not have rats running on it, a home she can feel is hers; does she have the right not to be thrown out onto the street, homeless and scared? Should anyone see Marissa's need for this home as a means for making money for himself-as much money as possible? That is the underlying question. It has to be answered honestly before there can be any authentic reasoning about housing, rents, and human lives in America." 

I was once so cold to the feelings of other people, it never entered my mind that a person could worry about having an income and a home. Like many Americans who grew up in affluent communities, I felt superior simply because my family had money. I regret this so much! Through my study of Aesthetic Realism my contempt was criticized and my hope to see other people fairly was encouraged. I came to see that the insides of other people are as real as my own and I am proud that now I have a passion about all people getting what they truly deserve-and this includes a home.

A practical solution

There is a practical solution to homelessness right now. The only thing stopping it is contemptuous greed in people, encouraged by our profit-driven economy. For example, preliminary figures of the 1996 "New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey" on the Internet show there are 81,000 vacant available rental units in New York City. The 1999 Consolidated Plan published by the New York City Department of City Planning states that in 1998 approximately 7,000 men and women and 4,500 families sought a bed in a city shelter each night. It is clear, there are  more than enough apartments right now so that no one has to be homeless! 

Homelessness will end in New York City and across America when every landlord, legislator, developer, and citizen in this land asks and answers honestly this kind, ethical question asked by Eli Siegel: "What does a person deserve by being a person?" 

This crucial question and its beautiful, practical answer is the subject of a public service film titled "What Does A Person Deserve," produced by Emmy-award winning filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman and endorsed by, among others, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

For information about this film, contact Imagery Film, Ltd., 212-243-5579, e-mail: ifl@mindspring.com. For more information about Aesthetic Realism, contact the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation, 141 Greene St., New York, NY 10012; 212-777-4490; www.AestheticRealism.org

Barbara Buehler is an associate city planner with the New York City Department of City Planning and an Aesthetic Realism associate. Her statement, "Housing: A Basic Human Right," was part of the New York Municipal Art Society's November 1998 exhibition, "100 Great Ideas for New York's Future." 

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