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Raquel Rolnik is Back In Los Angeles And Our Housing Crisis Is Worse Than Ever

Why? “The housing crisis became systemic and it is clearly linked to the financialization of housing.”

(Photo: Mary Braswell)

Raquel Rolnik, the former UN special rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, returned to Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood last week for the first time in a decade. When she was last here, she brought global attention to Los Angeles’ homelessness and housing crisis. And in the intervening decade these crises have only gotten worse. And Rolnik, the author of Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance has an answer as to why: “the housing crisis became systemic and it is clearly linked to the financialization of housing.”

Rolnik was in Los Angeles for the past two week as part of the Methodologies For Housing Justice: Summer Institute, put on by UCLA’s Institute On Inequality And Democracy at UCLA Luskin. The program, which brings together activists and academics from across the globe to discuss issues related to housing justice both at UCLA and at LA CAN on Skid Row, represents for Rolnik part of an evolution in the role of the academy within the housing justice movement. “For a long time, the academic world and the community action/organizing worlds, have been completely separate,” said Rolnik, “but in reality we see all over the world more and more students and professors and researchers are also parts of social movements.” For her the question posed by this Institute is how academic research related to housing justice can be done in service of the movements themselves. “It’s not a question of use after,” says Rolnik as I spoke to her at UCLA.

But we are of course living in the after of the financial catastrophe of the late-aughts. In 2009, the United States economy was in crisis and the unhoused population of the city was a visible symptom of that crisis. Yet the decade of recovery for the financial sector has been built off the backs of those who can barely afford a roof over their head. In Los Angeles, this has led to the unhoused population growing despite a supposed economic recovery. The past ten years have seen staggering rent increases paired with flat or even sinking wages for most working residents of Los Angeles. This means that the frontier of the housing crisis in Los Angeles has moved. Whereas a decade ago the visits that Rolnik made on her trip to Los Angeles were to displaced public housing residents, the unhoused, and victims of the foreclosure crisis, now she sees rental tenancy as a primary site of struggle. She looks at the work of the LA Tenants Union as amongst the most important organizing happening in the country. “Rent strikes,” Rolnik says with appreciation, “these are things that haven’t been seen in the United States since the early 20th century.”

With new forms of advocacy, the power of the state to oppress the unhoused and vulnerable has expanded as well. Rolnik sees this as an inversion of what the role of state should be. “Powerful machinery solves the problem of the people who do not want the homeless near their property,” Rolnik says, “this is reversing the question of who homelessness is being solved for.” The crisis is viewed through the lens of those with homes rather than those who are living on the streets. And the primary actor in that role reversal is the police, and their surveillance apparatus.

Raquel Rolnik (left) alongside UCLA’s Ananya Roy and LA CAN’s Pete White (Photo: Mary Braswell)

By bringing together an array of researchers and activists, the Institute is not just pairing activists with academics, but it is also calling into question what data means in an academic context. Rather than rely solely on the traditional academic literature, Rolnik sees this Institute as an opportunity to bring lived experience into the academic context as data. “We have been talking this week on memories and testimonies lived experience,” says Rolnik of the Institute’s work, “and the type of knowledge that is there and is not, but should be recognized as data and knowledge.” This lived experience tells a story that traditional self-reported metrics around policing and immigration may conceal.

The ambition here is large: to create a new way of working within the larger scope of urban planning, centering housing justice in both practical and theoretical methodologies. In so doing both the academy writ large and the powers behind the financialization of housing are contested. The hope is that ten years from now the tide will have turned away from the power structures that have led to a surge in consolidation of rental ownership. Given the forces arrayed on the other side, what other choice do academics and activists have?