evictedBy Abby MacPhail, Teacher at the United Nations International School and Organizer of the UNIS Human Rights Project

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In the summer of 2018, students in the UNIS Human Rights Project spent three intensive weeks investigating housing injustice in New York City. They traveled throughout the city to meet with tenant organizers, service providers, academics, advocates and activists working on issues related to housing and human rights. They also listened to and transcribed the stories of people living in homeless shelters, as well as of those who have been displaced, evicted and harassed by landlords in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Most importantly, they learned about the ways in which those affected by NYC’s housing crisis are organizing to make decent and affordable housing a human right.

The UNIS Human Rights project is a free and yearlong program that engages NYC high school students in the study of local human rights issues and equips them with skills in photography, journalism, and theatre to raise awareness and advocate for change.

As the organizer of this program, I decided to make housing the topic of this year’s program after reading Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. I was delighted when Penguin Random House agreed to my request to donate copies to the students in the program. Evicted shines a light on the eviction crisis experienced by poor people throughout the US through the personal stories of men, women, and children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to Desmond, over 2.3 million Americans were evicted from their homes in 2016, including over 38,000 in New York State. As Evicted makes clear, the trauma of losing a home or the experience of unaffordable and unstable housing impacts on all areas of life including health, employment and schooling.

Evicted provided students with an excellent gateway into exploring America’s housing crisis. While meeting with advocates from a variety of NYC-based housing justice organizations, students noticed many connections between Desmond´s Milwaukee-based research and the stories we heard from New Yorkers. Desmond debunks the myth that most poor people in the US live in public housing. In fact, throughout the US, three out of four families who qualify for some type of housing assistance receive nothing. In NYC, the lack of affordable housing is so extreme that the city is experiencing its highest rate of homelessness since the Great Depression. In 2017, over 63,000 people slept in city shelters, and of these over 70% were families with children and at least 30% of the families had at least one working adult.

Students also learned about how New Yorkers have implemented some of the solutions that Desmond advocates, such as the right to counsel in housing court. Students were fortunate to meet with representatives from the Coalition for the Right to Counsel who were successful in making NYC the first city in the country to pass a law in 2017 providing legal counsel to all tenants facing eviction.

Most commonly, after reading the book and hearing from New Yorkers, students expressed a deeper understanding of the causes of eviction and displacement. As Bella commented, “[E]victions can happen to anyone, and they are not often the result of personal choices. It is usually the situation that you have been put into or the circumstances you have been given.”

The students enjoyed the book. Many described how they couldn’t put it down once they started reading it. Noella, for example, explained how she was so engrossed in the book that she missed her subway stop.

Moving forward, students will now use insights gained from Evicted and from the summer program to create a photo exhibit and devise a theatre performance. The title of the exhibit will be “The Rent Eats First” which was inspired from Desmond’s use of this phrase. For more information and to get involved, go to: www.unishumanrightsproject.org.


Bella Serrano, a student at the United Nations International School and a participant in the 2018 UNIS Human Rights Project, reads Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City as she waits to catch her train.