We must understand that the housing crisis is not quite a crisis for everyone — for some, it’s extremely profitable.
We must understand that the housing crisis is not quite a crisis for everyone — for some, it’s extremely profitable. Unfortunately, data compiling who owns rental property is hard to find, so it’s difficult to figure out who these people are, much less where they live.
Looking at the four rent strikes that the LA Tenants Union (LATU) has been involved in — the Mariachis in Boyle Heights, Burlington in Westlake, Expo in South Central, and Avenue 64 in Highland Park — can help us begin to sketch this geography, suggesting that the ties between certain communities in this city are primarily ones of extraction.
(See the map above visualizing the locations of these rent strikes and their landlords.)
We can see how the housing market directly and intimately connects some of the richest neighborhoods in the country, if not the world, to some of the poorest ones. The former are so rich partly because the latter are so poor, with real estate serving as a scarily efficient mechanism for transferring ever-greater amounts of wealth from the working class to the one-percent as landlords relentlessly demand rent increases and evict families that can’t pay. Across these four neighborhoods — South LA, Westlake, Boyle Heights, and Highland Park — since 2013, average rents have increased by 43%, or $767 per month, further enriching wealthy property owners at the expense of struggling tenants.
We can also see how our real estate market allows investors with lots of money to uproot entire communities that they have no real stake in. The landowners whose speculation rips apart communities of color in LA’s gentrifying core tend to live outside of it. There is no democracy or self-determination for the people in these areas. Money rules all as capitalist tyrants ruin lives for profit, backed by the coercive power of the state, whereby the Sheriff’s Department will come and do the landlords’ dirty work of forcibly removing tenants.
And we can see how LA’s history of white supremacy continues to play out in the present, as three-of-four of the landlords are white (one is Korean), while all of the tenants are either Black or Latinx. Whiteness has always been one of the key requirements for accessing property in this country, and Los Angeles is certainly no exception. (In Los Angeles today, on average, Black and Mexican households have one cent for every dollar of wealth held by white households.)
Finally, none of these anti-displacement struggles would be necessary if we had universal rent control. (Vote yes on Prop 10 so we can expand rent control in LA!)
At Burlington’s 192 units, rents from the heavily Latinx neighborhood of Westlake (just west of Downtown) go straight to the Pacific Palisades, one of the richest and whitest areas in Los Angeles, lining the pockets of Lisa Ehrlich. Ehrlich, a white woman who inherited the properties from her father, was already extracting over $2 million from the Burlington tenants each year, and the recent increases she demanded of 30–40% amount to an additional yearly wealth transfer of $700,000. Families at Burlington worry about having enough money for food and if their children will be able to remain at the elementary school across the street, while Lisa Ehrlich’s two adult sons live rent-free in their respective multi-million dollar homes owned by their mother in Venice and Mid-City.
At Exposition Blvd., in South Central, over 80 Black and Latinx individuals have been banished from the area so that Kim Chung Suk, who lives in the wealthy suburb of Buena Park in Orange County, can maximize his investment by redeveloping and renting to USC students. The Mariachis in Boyle Heights successfully beat back BJ Turner’s rent-hikes and evictions, but their struggle still shows how the profits of this white homeowner in West LA come straight from his Latinx tenants in East LA. It’s a zero-sum game, and without rent control, landlords tend to win.
The Avenue 64 tenants, fighting a $200 million investment fund from Silicon Valley, Interstate Equities Corporation, run by a pair of white siblings, Marshall and Julia Boyd, may be the most instructive case here because their ongoing struggle demonstrates the changing political economy of housing, as ownership of rental property is increasingly financialized, globalized, and concentrated in the hands of massive investment pools. Here, rising rents and displacement in Highland Park (northeast of Downtown) enrich a firm all the way in the Bay Area, similar to how single-family-home rentals all across the country enrich the largest private equity firm in the world, Blackstone (based in NYC), and a handful of other publicly traded corporations that have poured billions of dollars into scooping up these assets since the financial crash of 2007/8.
In 2017, LA was voted the number one site for real estate investment in North America, according to a survey of global capitalists; gentrification will increasingly be driven by firms like Interstate Equity Corporation, and less by local investors like Lisa Ehrlich and BJ Turner.
Admittedly, this is just a partial picture based on a tiny sample size. We don’t know how many families in the Pacific Palisades or Westwood “earn” their wealth by squeezing all they can out of low-income tenants of color — but I’d bet it’s a lot. And just a quick look at the largest owners of rental property in LA reveals firms run almost exclusively by white men, who almost surely live in exclusive white neighborhoods far from the poor people they exploit.
Ultimately, when it comes to the housing market, the population of LA’s gentrifying core serves as an internal colony to be systematically plundered by capitalists residing in the region’s wealthy, white, homeowner neighborhoods, mirroring the relationships between the “core” and “periphery” nations in which resources and wealth have been violently siphoned from poor to rich over hundreds of years.
The capitalist real estate market is fundamentally designed to allow the rich to profit at the expense of the poor. We must pursue a radical vision for housing justice that sees universal rent control as just the beginning, a necessary but minor reform that precedes a struggle for truly revolutionary programs that build social housing for all, redistribute land on a massive scale (which, to me, means taking reparations seriously), and allow the people who live on the land to actually control how it’s used.