Interview: Houselessness is a Global Crisis
Thomas Mann House sat down with Fellow Lisa Riedner and Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) founder and director Pete White to discuss the global housing crisis through the lens of Los Angeles and Germany
Thomas Mann House: Pete and Lisa, can you tell us what attracted you to social justice activism?
Pete White (PW): I think I would flip that question and say how could I not be attracted to social justice, to equity? Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, living in the throes of deindustrialization; living in the throes of rampant criminalization; watching black bodies being carted away from the time that we were youngsters up to my adulthood; fathers in families missing because of the prison-industrial complex; looking at a lack of resources and organized abandonment in my community. To me, my life would be a lie if I looked around and saw the deficits and not do something about it. And so my environment called for me, demanded me to jump up and move and do something.
Lisa Riedner (LR): I had a similar reaction to Pete to the question, although, being raised in a German middle-class family, I was not directly affected by exclusion, criminalization and racism. But from an early age I was aware of social inequalities both in Germany and on a global scale. Part of my childhood, I grew up in Tanzania. However, I grew up within the dominant discourse of the early nineties that the times of protest and change were over, that “there is no alternative,” to use Thatcher’s famous phrase. I did not know much about the social movements of the 80s and 90s. At university I met some critical teachers, and also learned from getting involved in the anti-racist movement and social activism in Germany and the UK that the future is still unwritten; that you can actually make a change.
What are the problems facing homeless and low-income communities today on Skid Row?
PW: In 2019, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authorities, which is a joint body of the city and county of Los Angeles, released the findings of their annual count. In their findings, they showed that 71% of those who were houseless are houseless because of housing unavailability, unaffordability, and poverty. Only 29% of those who find themselves houseless were houseless as a result of either mental illness, substance abuse, or a combination of the two. For the last 30 or 35 years, all of the literature and all of the policies were rooted in a pathology that understood houseless people as people that were all either mentally ill or dealing with substance abuse or people who didn’t try hard enough. It was never viewed as an issue of economic justice, of racial justice, of gender justice. It was never looked at from an economic sense, a cultural sense, a political sense.
Lisa, after having been in Los Angeles for a couple of months, what are your first impressions of the housing crisis here?
LR: When I arrived, of course I knew already that many people lived on the streets of Los Angeles. Sensationalist reports in the media and apocalyptic imageries of L.A. like Blade Runner added to my expectations. But, although I was prepared, I was still shocked when I walked from the Financial District to Skid Row for the first time. I experienced the proximity between the rich, the skyscrapers and all the museums and high cultural scene, and right next to it, just a few meters away, Skid Row, where hundreds, maybe thousands of people live on the streets. During this first visit, I met a person who had written “Cop Watch” and “House Keys Not Handcuffs” on her tent. She said I should come to LA CAN and so I did. Now, after a few months, I am very impressed by the work LA CAN does here as a community organization on Skid Row, and in general, by the vivid and powerful movement for the human right to housing here in LA.
Could you draw some parallels between the situation in Southern California and in Germany?
LR: What I’ve learned in LA speaks to my work and the situation in Germany; the situation is very different but at the same time there are so many parallels.
Similar to the USA, there are powerful tenant movements in Germany that influence public debates and policy making processes. For example, in Berlin right now, the campaign “Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen” calls for the expropriation of landlords who own more than 3,000 apartments. They gathered 77,000 signatures in support of this quite radical demand, and polls show that 44–55% of Berliners support it. In LA, organizations such as the LA Tenants Union fight for tenant’s rights — often successfully.
Both in Germany and here, the housing crisis did not come from one day to another. It is a manufactured crisis, a result of political decisions. A recent study revealed that Germany is lacking 1.9 million affordable housing units. In 1998, there were still 4 million social housing units in Germany and now there are only one million left. One million social housing units for a population of 83 million.
Also, more and more people are excluded from basic social rights in Germany. New zones of internal exclusion — of differential inclusion — are produced. As part of this, houselessness is increasing. This process is in many ways similar to the rapid growth in houselessness in US-American cities when the welfare state was dismantled in the 80s. In Germany, social policies are increasingly used as tool of border control. Some estimations say that up to 80% of people currently experiencing houselessness in German cities are migrants from other EU-European countries. As EU-citizens, they are free to move but excluded from many social rights. And two weeks ago, the German government passed a law that also excludes big groups of asylum seekers from social rights. On both sides of the Atlantic, communities of color and migrants are disproportionally affected by poverty and houselessness. They are racialized issues.
What I see in both countries, too, is the criminalization of poverty. Confronted with rising numbers of houseless inhabitants, many municipalities in Germany have tightened their rules and targeted the houseless. For example, they can get fines for sitting or lying on the streets. Furthermore, a new federal law bans day labor markets.
Finally, I see that criminalization often goes hand in hand with a shift from a rights-based approach to top-down humanitarian responses in both contexts. Let me give an example. In Munich, the municipality initially restricted access to regular shelters mainly for migrants. The aim was to deter them. After it became clear that many people stayed even if they had to live on the streets, the city opened a new shelter in 2013 to protect people experiencing houselessness from freezing to death during the winter. We launched the campaign “We Want Housing” and protested against the substandard conditions of this shelter. This year, they decided to open the cold shelter the whole year round. But at the same time the city council decided to destroy all encampments in Munich. They said: “Because you can go to the shelter, we don’t allow you to stay on the streets anymore.” In California, a similar policy of forcing people experiencing houselessness to move inside and off the streets has just been suggested by the Mayor of Sacramento.
PW: It’s crazy, because if I just closed my eyes and just listened to you, many of the stories you’re telling right now are stories of the United States. Some things we’re just years ahead of you on, and other things we’re marching at the same beat of the same drum. To me that’s where these conversations are important. They’re important to have in this country, but they’re important to have them in other countries as well. I’ve had these conversations everywhere, from Norway to Portugal to Africa. And it always arrives at the same place: “Damn! You too?”
LR: Yes, I also think that these very local social struggles relate to the transnational context, especially the current global conjunctures of capitalism. The local and the global are bound together.
PW: Now I have a question: Could a migrant in Germany, say Munich, make enough money to afford housing? I ask that because, here in Los Angeles, we are in need of 550,000 units of housing for people who make 30–50% of the area median income range, that’s $28,000 to $31,000 a year. 550,000 units for that demographic. For that population, the average fair market value for a two bedroom in Los Angeles right now hovers between $2,600 and $2,800 a month. So, the amount of rent surpasses the amount of annual income. People can simply not afford the rent. So, my question is what sort of salary does it take in Munich to appropriately afford rent?
LR: The easy answer would be no; they can’t afford rent. Wages are too low and rents are too high. Even for singles who earn a minimum wage it is nearly impossible to find a place to stay. Their income is about 1000 Euro and an apartment of about 30 square meter costs around 750 Euro in Munich. Imagine, how much more difficult it is for families. But it is also important not to underestimate the agency and abilities of people in very precarious conditions to somehow make it work and find ways out of extreme poverty and exclusion.
What do you believe are the top priorities in addressing houselessness?
PW: I think we — organizers, activists, movement leaders — have to do a better job of exporting our experiences, both good and bad. In this country, we’re just now talking about the financialization of housing. Just now. It’s just now landing in the country. And it hasn’t landed for real in the movement work, on the ground. So when I think about lots of organizers who are doing incredible work, they’re still viewing the housing crisis as “There’s a landlord who’s jacking the rents up and that’s what we have to deal with. That landlord.” Not looking at housing being an investment strategy; not looking at the ways in which very wealthy people are just parking cash. There’s a 15% vacancy rate in luxury. And no one knows. Why is that vacancy rate acceptable? Because in our minds as organizers we’re like “Well, if people aren’t living in them, they’re not going to pencil out, and so then someday maybe we’ll be able to live in them,” without realizing it’s not about people living in them. They can be empty for the rest of the millennium and they’re still going to make money. And so, we have got to move away from housing as a commodity and back to housing as a right.
LR: Housing movements on both sides of the Atlantic should oppose the idea that the invisible hand of the market will solve the problem if we just ease existing regulations. But we have learned in many hard lessons that the market does not work for the poor and marginalized but against them. Instead of deregulation, we should push for more rent-controlled and social housing.
Also, I think we have to understand that houselessness is not only an issue of housing but of social inequality in a much broader sense. The ongoing dismantlement of the welfare state, precarization of labor, different articulations of racism, commodification of health care and the criminalization of poverty are just a few of the immediate problems that entangle in the issue of houselessness.
Are there recent developments that keep you hopeful?
PW: A couple of things. The thing that really inspires me and that pushes me to keep doing this work is that people show up every day. People show up. People show up, who folks feel don’t have agency and have no resilience. People are innovating ways and strategies and campaigns to at least gain a foothold in this battle.
A couple of weeks ago, across the pages of the LA Times and a variety of newspapers, council members and the Times quoted folks saying that: “These solutions we’re moving forth on today are things that LA CAN has been saying for twenty years.” And folks asked me, was that a victory? And I told them, “One: No. It’s not a victory.” We can’t declare victory when there’s one single tent still on the street. It’s not a victory when you can’t drive, you can’t even walk, two blocks without seeing poverty slapping you in your face, right? The victory really is the vigilance of people who are steeped in the desire to build their knowledge regarding why these issues exist and then moving from that knowledge towards action. That’s really it.
LR: What Pete says resonates with my response to that question. What inspires me is to work with people who keep on struggling although living in very precarious conditions. People who don’t give up and organize together. Also, as a researcher, it encourages me to work with people who try to produce knowledge for social change, knowledge that is positioned with the movements.
The interview was conducted by Tyler Smith, Thomas Mann House, Los Angeles
Save the date for the Worlds of Homelessness Events Series: October 22–27, 2019 in Los Angeles at the Skid Row Museum. https://www.goethe.de/ins/us/en/kul/wir/woh/21647487.html