May 27, 2019 - From the May, 2019 issue

UCLA's Ananya Roy on Housing Inequality & Market-Driven Displacement

Central to the arguments promoting YIMBY solutions to housing affordability, such as Senator Scott Wiener's SB 50, is the claim that blanket upzoning by state government will eventually ease demand and lower rents for older properties in jobs-rich parts of California. But whether this proposed solution to the state's housing crisis could ever seriously address housing affordability in coastal California is contentiously debated among the urban planning faculty at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. In this interview, UCLA professor Ananya Roy—globally renowned urban scholar and founding director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskinargues that the narrow lens of the supply-side approach fails to understand and address the structural causes of housing insecurity, and thus fails to address the housing crisis more broadly. TPR is proud to present the following interview with Dr. Roy.


Ananya Roy

"The SB 50 agenda centers the needs and demands of a very loud and entitled group: the YIMBY movement. Instead, we must center communities facing housing precarity, dispossession, and displacement." —Ananya Roy

As founding director of the UCLA Institute on Inequality and Democracy, share your findings on the underlying causes of housing unaffordability and homelessness in Los Angeles and California.

Ananya Roy: There are a few key trends at the heart of our research and the housing justice work at the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, particularly as it pertains to Los Angeles and California. The first is the massive process of the restructuring of metropolitan areas, which can be understood as a new form of residential segregation. In my own work, I have called this racial banishment. This refers to the displacement of working-class communities of color from urban cores to the far peripheries of urban life.

We have better data and information on this phenomenon in the Bay Area, much of it done by Urban Habitat and PolicyLink, among others. At the Institute, we are committed to doing similar work in Los Angeles in order to understand processes of dispossession, and in particular to understand where working-class communities of color are displaced.

Anecdotally, we know that they are ending up in the Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, and Riverside, but we are not convinced that they are finding a foothold even there. We need to understand these broad processes of displacement and resegregation, of which eviction is perhaps the most visible symptom.

Driving these processes are myriad structural forces, which are the second piece of our research. For example, huge rent burdens can be understood as a symptom of market-driven displacement. But we are particularly interested in analyzing how these processes are deeply racialized, as well as the important role played by state policies and programs—particularly practices of criminalization and policing—in these forms of banishment. Put another way, these are not just market-driven processes, but rather state-driven processes embedded in long histories of racial exclusion and segregation. We are keen not only to research these processes, but also to find ways of countering and challenging them.

This week, The Planning Report published research by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project on California real estate owned by large financial organizations, such as Blackstone. How significant is this research on housing in the US and Los Angeles for your work?

We need a lot more research on the financialization of land and housing in US cities and the ways these processes actually affect our communities. We know that these forms of financialization have been going on at a global scale for quite some time, and that there is a continuity between what we see today with older forms of financialization. However, there is a distinctive pattern in the United States that is very relevant to Los Angeles.

At the risk of oversimplification, the story goes a bit like this: What we saw with the foreclosure crisis and the Great Recession was, of course, predatory lending by large banks. That predatory, deregulated lending led to a massive loss of wealth and homeownership for racial and ethnic minorities. There were whole cities and communities devastated by the vast reach of that crisis.

 Those neighborhoods, as well as the neighborhoods we traditionally think of as the “inner city,” are now the sites of new forms of predatory financialization. Private equity firms such as Blackstone are buying up quite large amounts of property, including foreclosed single-family homes, and converting them into rental housing—and then, as research by scholars such as Desiree Fields shows, securitizing that housing and turning it into a speculative asset.

Other cities around the world, such as Barcelona and Berlin, have seen very important policy debates about how to address this kind of speculation and its impact on communities. These are debates about how to regulate massive financial forces, and also about how to protect vulnerable communities from predatory financialization. The UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Housing, Raquel Rolnik, and now Leilani Farha, have been persistently making this case. These debates are long overdue here in the United States.

The research and policy considerations you’ve described seem antithetical to the focus of the current debate in the state Legislature—namely, the agenda of the YIMBY movement as expressed by SB 50, which would have upzoned residential neighborhoods irrespective of community plans. Speak to the nature of the dialogue at the state as juxtaposed with your work.

It is absolutely correct that our work is dramatically different from the SB 50 agenda. That agenda centers the needs and demands of a very loud and entitled group: the YIMBY movement. We at the Institute do not. Instead, we center communities facing housing precarity and those that have long faced many different forms of dispossession and displacement.

When there is talk of a housing crisis in California, it is important to recognize that different social classes experience that crisis in different ways. I lived and worked in the Bay Area for a very long time; much of my academic career was spent at UC Berkeley. I saw the Bay Area—including the city that I called home for many decades, Oakland—be transformed by tech capitalism.

Now, I understand that there is a housing crisis for well-paid tech workers. I understand that there is even a housing crisis for well-paid UCLA professors. But addressing that housing crisis—which is most likely what would happen through upzoning—cannot come at the expense of deepening the housing crisis for the working-class communities that are already facing tremendous pressures of gentrification and displacement.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the YIMBY movement and the Scott Wiener coalition has been their absolute refusal to learn from and be in conversation with the housing justice conversations that have worked in different parts of California for decades. In many ways, it is a movement and coalition that has insisted on putting the housing crisis of the upper-middle and middle classes before the housing crisis of anyone else.

There are also many flawed arguments to the YIMBY school of thought, which is the reason I did not join my urban planning colleagues at UCLA in supporting SB 827. For example, there is the simplistic housing supply argument that if we just build more housing—regardless of the price point—it will trickle down and lower housing prices for all, and somehow, magically, more housing will appear for those who are disadvantaged. That is not how housing markets work. They are thoroughly segmented and segregated.

But most importantly, in SB 827 and even in SB 50, there was very little concern given to the key policy issues that tenant and housing justice organizations were pushing for, such as rent control, rent stabilization, and protections against displacement. SB 827, and then SB 50, were both ways of solving the housing crisis for the upper-middle class—particularly for the white, entitled YIMBY movement—by grabbing the land of those who are truly on the front lines of the housing crisis.

Several of your colleagues in UCLA’s Urban Planning Department (Professors Michael Manville, Mike Lens, and Paavo Monkkonen) recently issued a paper challenging the findings of another colleague, Professor Michael Storper, about the YIMBYs’ supply-side thesis—all the while admitting that SB 50 would not address housing affordability in our lifetimes. How does the conversation on housing break down among the faculty at UCLA Luskin?

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I think it’s good for those of us who belong to the same department to be in debate and disagreement with one another. What matters most to me is whether or not those debates are concerned with the housing futures of communities that are under the most pressure in California today.

The Institute on Inequality and Democracy is quite new; we launched in 2016. In that short time, we have made it very clear that we will center, and be accountable to, social movements and community organizations that are fighting for housing justice, against mass incarceration, or against predatory financialization. That is what our research is most concerned with.

The upzoning debate is important, but there are many other ways in which the housing question can be framed. At the Institute, we do not take as our starting point the narrow debate about the long- or short-term effects of upzoning as an instrument. Instead, our starting point is this: What are the most acute aspects of today’s housing precarity and housing crisis? What are the structural mechanisms causing this precarity? And how might we produce research, policy ideas, and forms of collective action to address that precarity?

Why is your institute’s work largely absent from the conversation at the state level about how to confront what is broadly described as California’s housing crisis?

What is inevitably reflected at the state level is a set of powerful interests. It’s worth taking a look at the list of supporters for SB 50 in addition to the YIMBY movement, reflecting on the building industry and realtor associations as well as affordable housing associations. In California, there is a distinctive affordable-housing-industrial complex, and we have to ask how it functions and whether it is delivering housing for those facing houselessness, evictions, and racial discrimination.

The movements that speak to these latter issues have never held power in city halls or in the lobbies of Sacramento. But they are the ones fighting the real battles around rent control and the need to stop criminalizing poverty. That work is very much happening; whether or not it makes it into the form of a state bill is another matter.

What other approaches to address housing affordability and equity have you encountered in your global research that California could emulate?

There are indeed many lessons to be learned from other parts of the world. At the Institute, we take a global approach to questions of housing justice. In fact, we are currently home to a National Science Foundation-funded, four-and-a-half-year project to establish a global research network on housing justice. I myself have done a lot of work in cities in the global South. Certainly, we are very interested in thinking from other parts of the world about what is going on in California.

The United States, as the home of some of the world’s largest incarceration systems, criminalizes poverty and houselessness in a way that one simply does not see in other parts of the world. And in the United States, this is a deeply racialized project. This sort of criminalization is pretty unusual, and there is no good reason for it to exist other than structural racism. Consider how different the housing question would be in the United States without such criminalization—be it one-strike policies, nuisance laws, or ordinances that violate the constitutional rights of the houseless. That is one lesson.

A second is that there are very important debates happening in different parts of the world—including, most recently, in Berlin—about the ownership of land and its use for housing. These debates are largely about using state power to expropriate or nationalize empty bank-owned housing, as well as apartment buildings if there is a tremendous concentration of ownership in a single landlord. To be clear, this is not about mom-and-pop landlords; this is precisely about forms of regulation for Wall Street landlords and massive corporations for whom housing is a speculative commodity.

Brazil is another example. Unfortunately, things will be different going forward under the Bolsonaro regime. But in the last quarter of the 20th century, Brazil’s process of democratization was focused on the right to housing and the social function of property, and the ways in which local governments might be able to insist on that social function—not only by providing social housing, but also by regulating the ownership and use of land. 

Lastly, elaborate on your background and experiences that inform your current research.

I am a professor of urban planning whose work has been concerned for a long time with urban poverty and inequality. The roots of that interest lie in the city in which I grew up: Kolkata, India.

A great deal of my academic research and public scholarship has been concerned with communities living under conditions of precarity in cities around the world but that have been able to forge new meanings of housing, property, personhood, collectivity, and the commons.

My current work is concerned with ending the criminalization of poverty in the United States. It is thus focused on how municipal ordinances, including those in Los Angeles, are key mechanisms of exclusion and displacement. The only way to understand such processes of racial banishment is to seriously consider the repeated forced removals of people of color through which this country was settled.

Put another way, I see housing justice as a racial justice issue, and that is the work we advance at the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.