Vestal on Need to Empower the Unhoused

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Mark Vestal spoke to the Los Angeles Times about ways to prevent homelessness in Los Angeles instead of simply reacting to it. According to Vestal, one of the core problems in addressing the issue of homelessness is lack of political power among unhoused individuals. The House California Challenge Program, or AB 2817, aims to provide $5 billion over five years in rental subsidies for people who are homeless or on the brink of it, many of them families and people of color. Latinos are estimated to make up 35% of the homeless population in Los Angeles, but many prefer to stay in overcrowded housing with other families instead of going to traditional homeless shelters and encampments. “They chose the places where they want to live, even if they’re outdoors, because they have communities that are holding them together,” Vestal said.


A System That Threatens Rights of the Unhoused

A New Republic article on Los Angeles homelessness policies that led to the 2021 sweep of an encampment at Echo Park Lake cited UCLA Luskin faculty members Ananya Roy and Mark Vestal. The two scholars described a shelter system that often violates the rights of unhoused individuals. Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy and author of a report on the fallout from the Echo Park Lake eviction, said residents of interim housing face “a constant stripping of rights in the way that in prison you’re stripped of your rights.” Before entering interim housing, residents must testify that “no tenancy is created,” effectively denying them hard-fought rights associated with being a tenant, said Vestal, an assistant professor of urban planning. He added that politicians and police often deploy the language of mental illness, “justifying the shelter system as a medical intervention,” rather than confronting the public policies that deprive people of dignified housing.


 

Vestal on Barriers to Addressing Homelessness

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Mark Vestal spoke to LAist about Section 8, a federal program that subsidizes housing for low-income individuals and families, the elderly and disabled. This program allows individuals experiencing homelessness to secure housing through vouchers. However, Vestal noted that about 50% of the people who get vouchers still can’t find housing. Landlords are incentivized to accept housing vouchers when they are in communities in decline and they are unable to get market-rate rent, but the incentive disappears when neighborhoods start to gentrify. “Landlords can discriminate against voucher holders and they have complete discretion,” Vestal explained. Furthermore, once an individual finds an apartment, it can still take a long time for the housing voucher to be approved. Vestal concluded that unhoused people have ideas about how they want to live with belongings and social space, and we should have a housing system that respects their needs and wants.


Vestal on History of L.A.’s Black Homelessness Crisis

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Mark Vestal spoke to LAist about the role of racial inequity in the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles. Vestal co-authored the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy report “Making of a Crisis: The History of Homelessness in L.A.,” which explored the history of the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, starting with the Great Depression and leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Black unhoused people are one of the largest groups facing homelessness in Los Angeles, and Vestal pointed out that the long history of racist housing policies has led to a discrepancy in homeownership among Black residents. “Black folks were segregated in inner cities and subject to predatory mortgage markets and home-buying schemes that continued to suck Black dollars and wealth from bank accounts for decades,” Vestal explained. Lack of federal support and mental health crises have exacerbated the issue of homelessness, he said.


Human Rights Over Property Rights, Vestal Says

The Los Angeles Times spoke to Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Mark Vestal for a column about the growing issue of homelessness in Los Angeles. Experts estimate that there are at least 60,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles and as many as 365,000 renting households on the brink of eviction. While most Angelenos agree that homelessness is a pressing issue, they disagree on whether it is a property rights issue or a human rights issue, which makes it difficult to find a solution. “The history of homelessness testifies to the futility of trying to find solutions that average these two perspectives,” Vestal said. Enforcing property rights on people experiencing homelessness only creates more obstacles to ending homelessness. “You can’t just criminalize a condition that people can’t cure,” Vestal said. “These problems that we have created — they are all intimately tied up with the good things we thought we were making of our society.”


Marques Vestal

Marques Vestal is an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Critical Black Urbanism. He serves as a Faculty Advisor for Million Dollar Hoods, a community-driven and multidisciplinary initiative documenting the human and fiscal costs of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. He also serves as a historical consultant for the Luskin Center for History and Policy. Marques is a tenant of Los Angeles and a member of the South Central local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union.

Marques is an urban historian studying the social history of residential property in Black Los Angeles during the rebellious twentieth century. His work links property conflict—the everyday contracts, solicitations, complaints, lawsuits, and murders over property—to broader transformations of real estate, urban development, and Black liberation. He argues that this space of incessant conflict is the unwritten housing policy of the United States.

Marques’ research interests are broad, but center on the twentieth-century experience of a few key political relations to land: property, housing insecurity, municipal incapacity, and racial capitalism. Having witnessed, archivally and firsthand, the violence of Los Angeles’ rental housing markets, he is dedicated to projects that advance social housing and horizontal tenant governance.

 

Publications

Marques Vestal and Andrew Klein, “What we should have learned from L.A.’s long history of homelessness,” Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-02-22/homelessness-encampments-shelter-los-angeles-history

Kirsten Moore-Sheeley et. al. “The Making of a Crisis: A History of Homelessness in Los Angeles,” UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy. https://luskincenter.history.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/66/2021/01/LCHP-The-Making-of-A-Crisis-Report.pdf. (February 2021)

Lytle Hernandez, Kelly and Marques Vestal. “Million Dollar Hoods: A Fully-Loaded Cost Accounting of Mass Incarceration in Los Angeles,” Radical History Review. http://www.radicalhistoryreview.org/

Katz, Alisa with Peter Chesney, Lindsay King, and Marques Vestal. “People Are Simply Unable to Pay Rent: What History Tells Us About Rent Control in Los Angeles,” White Paper. Luskin Center for History and Policy, University of California, Los Angeles. (October 2018)

Vestal on L.A.’s Long History of Homelessness

Marques Vestal, incoming assistant professor of urban planning, co-authored a Los Angeles Times opinion piece about lessons the region can learn from its long history of grappling with homelessness. One key to finding a durable solution to the housing crisis is recognizing the power of self-determination among the unhoused, wrote Vestal and Andrew Klein, members of a research team that produced a report on the history of homelessness in Los Angeles for the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy. “Homeless people are actors and make decisions on their own behalf that city policy cannot fully control,” the authors wrote, encouraging support for this self-determination instead of focusing on top-down strategies. They called on leaders to advance grass-roots homebuilding initiatives and ensure access to water, bathrooms, trash collection and other services in existing encampments. “Without dignified and healthful alternatives, encampments will continue to serve as homes for thousands of marginalized people, as they have now for over a century.”

Documentary Zeroes In on Canceling College Debt

A documentary about the growing movement to cancel student debt, co-produced by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy (II&D) and released by The Intercept, features insights from the Luskin School’s faculty and staff. “You Are Not a Loan” shares the experiences of activists, academics and debt-burdened students as they strategize across class and cultural lines to bring about the right to free college for all. The film was shot in February 2020 following an II&D- hosted conference urging a fresh vision for financing higher education. Within weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campuses nationwide, stepping up the urgency to create an equitable system of education. Joining the conversation are II&D Associate Faculty Director Hannah Appel and Deputy Director Marisa Lemorande, as well as Marques Vestal, who will join the School’s urban planning faculty in June. Vestal will also take part in a Jan. 30 virtual Q&A about the documentary as part of the Sundance Film Festival.