A ‘Generation-Altering Moment’ in the Homelessness Crisis

Marques Vestal, assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Capital B about an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case that will determine whether people experiencing homelessness can be issued jail time, tickets and fines for sleeping on the streets, even if there are no shelter alternatives available to them. If the court decides to uphold laws that target the unhoused, “it will be a generation-altering moment in urban history where cities are going to be able to enforce constitutional removal and displacement,” said Vestal, whose research includes the underlying causes of Black homelessness in Los Angeles. “We’re supposed to put people from encampments into either temporary or permanent housing. Instead, we’ll lose most of those people,” he said. “This will lead to a new regime of debt, and for Black folks, debt is always some kind of leverage for some other burying harm.”


Housing Inequality Is So Entrenched It Could Spark a Movement Scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says establishing a human right to shelter may seem utopian but is long overdue

By Mary Braswell

At the outset of her appearance before a UCLA audience, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor made one thing clear: The United States is not in the midst of a housing crisis.

“ ‘Crises’ are interruptions in the status quo, and housing precarity is a permanent feature of U.S. society,” said Taylor, a leading scholar of social movements and racial justice.

It was a semantic distinction that pointed to a formidable challenge: What can be done to dismantle a housing system that Taylor said has been hijacked by corporate interests, turning the family home into a hedge-fund commodity traded on the international stage?

“What we’re seeing is the deep marginalization of the socially useful purpose of housing as a dwelling … turned into an asset to be bought and sold, an asset that is mostly valued as a thing, not as a place to live,” Taylor said.

But she assured the audience that the arc of history that led to this harsh 21st-century reality also holds lessons on how to establish a human right to decent shelter.

Taylor shared insights from her 2019 book “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. The professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University has also received accolades that include a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Her newest enterprise, as co-founder of Hammer & Hope, a magazine exploring Black politics and culture, launched just hours before her standing-room-only appearance on Feb. 15 as part of the UCLA Luskin Lecture Series, in partnership with the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.

Taylor warned against oversimplifying the solution to housing insecurity. Raising wages just to make sure people can afford exorbitant mortgages and rents, for example, only perpetuates a corrupt system.

While the racial wealth gap is real, she said, “it is often used as a smokescreen to blot out the larger dimensions of extraordinary housing inequality and insecurity.”

Today’s housing system takes a toll not just on the Black community, which has endured generations of racist policies in the real estate industry, and not just on the nation’s poorest, those living outdoors or struggling to pay rent for substandard shelter.

“We’re talking about half of the United States living with rent burden, paying 30% of their income toward rent, and more than a quarter paying half of their income toward rent,” Taylor said. “This housing economy is like roller skates with no stops on a steep hill on the top of a mountain. … There are no brakes on any of this, and every year, it’s getting worse and worse and worse.

“And so I think it becomes the basis upon which to build a different kind of a movement.”

Taylor recalled pivot points in U.S. history when tenants rose up to demand change and governments enacted tough regulations to curb “the worst impulses of capitalism.”

She spoke about the promise of current efforts, including the Green New Deal for Public Housing and alternative solutions such as co-ops and community land trusts.

“Such proposals might have once seemed utterly utopian,” she said. “They now feel long overdue.”

Following her lecture, Taylor shared the stage with scholars Cheryl I. Harris of UCLA Law, Marques Vestal of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning and Ananya Roy, founding director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The dialogue continued the following day when Taylor met with grassroots organizers at the Los Angeles Community Action Network in downtown’s Skid Row.

“We see an economic system that is incompatible with housing security and housing justice,” Taylor said at the lecture. “And so that raises another question about what kind of world we want to live in and the struggle that is necessary to produce it.”

View photos from the lecture on Flickr.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor LLS

Watch a recording of the lecture on Vimeo.


Vestal on Whether Access to Housing Will Become a Fundamental Right

In a YES! magazine story profiling the activities of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), UCLA Luskin’s Marques Vestal talks about the long-term impact of the pandemic and whether it will lead to changes in housing access. The assistant professor of urban planning and critical Black urbanism at UCLA is also a member of LATU. He says it remains to be seen whether the public will accept “going back to normal” or instead back mass movements that demand that housing be treated as a fundamental right. “That’s what’s going to give a future political movement of tenants that’s happening in the country right now longevity,” Vestal said.


Vestal on Law-Enforcement Approach to Homelessness Crisis

Marques Vestal, assistant professor of urban planning, spoke to Capital B about a Los Angeles ordinance designating thousands of locations off-limits to homeless encampments. The law has divided the city, with supporters calling for increased public safety around schools and opponents arguing that a law-enforcement approach to homelessness will push vulnerable people deeper into poverty. The article noted that Black people make up nearly 45% of the unhoused population in Los Angeles County. Vestal, co-author of the UCLA report “The Making of a Crisis: A History of Homelessness in Los Angeles,” said the policy of policing the homelessness crisis has burdened Black people for decades. “The housing system has created an institutional process that makes us more vulnerable to getting money taken away from us and more vulnerable to violence,” he said.


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.



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)