Dear LA Times

Los Angeles
January 3, 2017
Dear LA Times

Donald Trump first made his millions by strong-arming the city of New York into subsidizing his luxury development projects, and now the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly, expect me to protect LA’s own (and foreign) brand of investors, for doing the same where I live. They also have the audacity to accuse me of rejecting their pocketing of my tax money for their vacancy-insured towers, for their private gains on public land, for their model of government which they perceive exists only to produce wealth for the wealthy, on the basis that I subscribe to some kind of NIMBYism, wherein I reject their buildings (and their profits) on aesthetics alone. I may in fact agree with my frenemies, the NIMBYs, on a few things: first, that new development is most often garish, incongruous, and experienced by the community as an unwelcome shock. But these aesthetic claims, like many aesthetic claims, are a shortcut for political views. If I find new developments garish, I am merely expressing in aesthetic terms that they are cheap—they reveal both in their materials and in labor costs that the developers have sought to cut corners on the ethical treatment of the environment and other human beings. If I find new developments incongruous, I am merely reflecting on the process by which they are approved, through the city’s arbitrary granting of spot exemptions to zoning code (for which the city tends to use the affordable housing shortage as an excuse to say yes to luxury development, especially, as the Times has reported, after hearty donations are made). If I say that I experience new developments as a shock, then I may be pointing out their architecture—buildings rendered rather than designed; copy, pasted, and plunked into the real world as swiftly as a photoshop object—but more likely, I am naming in what few words I have, the experience of encountering most new developments as unwanted, unneeded, threatening, and in fact damaging to the communities in which I find them.

I’ll dispense with further exasperation about the accusation that tenants rights activists are motivated by nothing more than aesthetically-driven NIMBYism. But I do want to be clear that we are not motivated by some kind of false consciousness our critics can congratulate themselves for having seen through. We have a fundamentally different view about how to make a city that regular people can survive and even thrive in. If our critics do not wish to hear or accept this, it is because a lot of things would have to change, power would have to shift, and likely, in order to give more to everyone else, they would have to lose some.

Our critics fall into to camps. First, there are the developers and the people that would like to see them richer. If you are a Trump in this world or his ally, I might try to convince you that the righteousness with which you act as if you deserve to own the world, no matter the ethical costs, is built on bad faith and individualistic greed, but you already know it and don’t care. So it’s the second kind of critic I seek to address here: they are the “supply-side” enthusiasts, who admit a problem (called a housing crisis) but seem to believe that its solution will come from more of its cause. Government officials, editors and writers for most major and minor city publications, urban planning consultants, often fall into this camp, as do many whose life experience has not yet put them in direct conflict with development.

The Economics 101 we all receive by living in the US, watching American movies, and shopping tells us about supply and demand under capitalism. If something is too expensive, the logic goes, all we need is more of it, and the price will come down (a telling error, given that on the supply/demand curve, “more” means the price just goes up less quickly.) From this “simple economics,” supply-siders tell us to build. Sometimes they say that any housing is housing enough, echoing Regan’s trickle-down policies with a claim that building luxury apartments will ease the pressure on our poorest residents. Sometimes they say that the concessions developers make for tax credits is housing enough, that the scant few affordable units built for every luxury is a win for all. These proponents of concessions fail to say “affordable” is a technical term, based on area median income, and most of the housing built under its provisions are still unaffordable to many. They fail to say that new developments don’t come with right of return for tenants who were evicted from their building to make way for these units, or for those next-door, evicted through the legal loophole of Elis or in practice by too-high rent. They most certainly fail to say how different housing is from the commodities to which the law of supply and demand is supposed to apply: living in the US, watching American movies, and shopping should also give us enough awareness of the price of gasoline and corn to know not all commodities live by the same rules. Indeed, the housing market doesn’t produce homes; it produces opportunities for investment. Blaming the high price of housing on a shortage misses the facts of the financialized economy, in which asset prices inflate because of speculation not supply. Market solutions don’t solve the problem. They are the problem.

The refrain is always the same: get rid of government intervention; cut environmental and zoning regulations to speed more building; gut rent control and public housing to make way for the market to it mete out. Of course, historical redlining was a government regulation by which people of color were barred from receiving home-loans in certain areas, allowing price gouging in the areas they were. Government divestment of resources for community infrastructure and improvements in areas predominately inhabited by people of color (after redlining was declared illegal) was an intervention, one which prepared the investment speculation we see in those same areas today. Government backing of sub-prime mortgage loans that predominately targeted people of color was an intervention, as was its decision to bail out bankers and not homeowners, so that those same bankers could snatch up and consolidate the real estate which PoC lost. That the etymology of the “real” in real estate comes from “royal” should tell us that the State has such an inherent impact on producing, enforcing, and circulating housing, that it never was simply a matter of supply and demand, but rather a supply and a complex system including property rights, public infrastructure, historic redlining, strategic investment and divestment, policing, and finally, rent regulations, those hard-won, now-eroding safeguards protecting renters from landlords and landlords from themselves.

The neoliberal policy makers and their agitators have told you that getting rid of government regulation and intervention will help our housing crisis, that we should privatize public housing stock (or simply demolish it), that we should use public money to subsidize the private market (even while vouchers make housing the poor more expensive, and money goes not to resident services but to the landlords’ pockets, and just one out of five families who deserves housing assistance gets it). They will tell you that rent control prevents the market from distributing housing fairly, as it would if we all just got out of the way. (If, over the last few decades the erosion of tax regulations have produced far less egalitarian distribution of wealth, they say deregulation has not gone far enough or simply has yet to run its course). But while on one side, the supply-siders will tell you to get the government out of the housing market, they never say anything about getting the government’s agents of repression, aggression, and murder out of the bargain. Indeed, when gallerists in Boyle Heights stop calling the police on brown protestors disrupting their commerce, when that police force stops increasing their patrols and adding new surveillance to the neighborhood (most recently a camera on 6th and Anderson), when Echo Park police drops its gang injunction, put in place to displace brown residents by intimidation and incarceration, when Downtown Business Improvement Districts, formed by new developers and trained by LAPD, stop harassing, destroying the property, and kicking-out LA’s downtown homeless residents, then I might agree that the government has no role to play in housing. Market solutions rely on government intervention—for the policing of communities and the protection of private property.

But for all the crying out about the desperation to build, developers are building more than ever, back to pre-recession levels, and consolidating their holdings, pooling land through real estate companies, operating at a global scale to re-circulate the increasing profits of the wealthy (while average workers’ wages stagnate and jobs are eliminated). To them, housing is a way of turning money into more money. It has an economic use. To the people priced out of their homes, or struggling to keep them, housing has a social use, and even an existential use, to connect residents to their families, their communities, the services they need, to give them a space where they can feel, for a time, safe.

From the perspective of average people in Los Angeles, Los Angeles does not have a housing crisis, as the cranes across the sky tell us, it has a displacement crisis. Gentrification, a word I haven’t tried to use yet, for fear of the canned responses from “it’s good for communities” to “it’s complicated” to “it’s inevitable,” is quite simply displacement and replacement for profit. It may be produced by the collaboration of many actors, but it is a process that can be thought, and thereby slowed, resisted, and stopped. Indeed, when we stop looking at housing as a matter of units to fill (as an equation of economic value) and start looking at the way renters are forced to distribute themselves across a city (as a matter of social and personal use), we see the true human cost of “revitalization,” “regeneration,” “urban renewal” (which James Baldwin rightly called “Negro Removal”). Displacement is that human cost (and the Center for Disease Control’s report on its health effects should put this into alarming relief). When we stop looking at landscapes of housing (residential segregation, homelessness, gentrification) as the result of individual consumer choices and start looking at how it is produced by strategy and policy, we understand that the decimation of long-term communities by wealthier and whiter residents goes beyond the pioneering and paternalistic rhetoric of “there was nothing here” or “it’s so much safer now;” their arrival has been ultimately planned and designed through the collaboration of government and developers to raise property values, turn over racial demographics, generate investment opportunities, and increase private profits.

Market-based, supply-side solutions will not solve the housing crisis, they are already making the displacement crisis worse. It’s a crisis of ethics, not analytics. We won’t solve it with lessons from Economics 101, but with truly affordable and public housing, universal rent control, citizen oversight of development, co-operative ownership, and the removal of police as occupying forces in communities. Tenants fear new development not because we’re NIMBYs concerned with the aesthetics of our neighborhoods, but because we’re fighting to stay in our neighborhoods. Not because we don’t understand how markets work, but because we do. To advocate for more city-subsidized development projects or watered-down versions with bad-faith “affordability” provisions is to advocate for market solutions that we know will fail. We need solutions to the housing crisis informed not by the neoliberal ideals of supply-and-demand, but by the everyday needs of real renters. Profit is not a human right. Housing is.

—Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal