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Human Rights & Jewish Values: Right to Property

In honor of the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

by Audrey Lyon, Yachad Executive Director

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 17:
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

The first biblical record of property ownership can be found in Parashat Chayei Sarah. In this parasha, Sarah has died, and Abraham seeks to obtain an appropriate burial place for his beloved wife. Abraham understands the importance of purchasing a plot of land. It is not enough that he find a place for Sarah to be buried. The text describes in detail the contractual negotiations that take place to secure legal ownership of the land in perpetuity.

Abraham was making sure that the legal claim to this piece of land would be recognized for generations.Continuing in Parashat Vayechi Chapter 47:28-31, Jacob calls to his son Joseph and says, “Do not bury me now in Egypt. I will lie with my forefathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their grave.”

Fast forward 4,000 years. The importance of property ownership — in particular, owning one’s own home – is a fundamental way to acquire and build wealth, to secure family stability and most important, as a foundation for a successful life. As Matthew Desmond writes in his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted, Poverty and Profit in the American City, “The home is the center of life. It is the refuge from the grind of work, and the pressure of school…. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms. Decent affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

Unfortunately, the prevalence of housing inequities affecting lower-income neighborhoods in the District of Columbia and greater metropolitan area, which are primarily communities of color, reflects a history of structural racism hat has created barriers for these communities to maintain reasonable living conditions and access wealth. Today, the legacy of these structural obstacles has left many black families financially vulnerable. As communities experience rapidly  rising property values and housing costs, many are confronted with the threat of displacement and have fewer options for quality, affordable housing.

At both the individual and neighborhood levels, preserving existing housing and improving the quality of life for lower-income residents and communities of color addresses the poor housing conditions which contribute to significant inequities in health and well-being. By improving existing single-family homes, these efforts can create new wealth in newly found home equity, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods where home values are rising substantially.

Abraham knew that owning property was the way to insure the “family” legacy and inheritance. L’dor v’dor there would be a home in the Land. Similarly, modern day home ownership creates family legacy and inheritance. Dr. Erica Brown writes, “A person needs a home, an anchor of stability; in this changing chaotic world, every soul needs to be an island of repose.”

May it be so.

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