“We have to think about how the work we do can support that optimism and hope for a more just future.”
Director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy and UCLA professor of urban planning and social welfare
“It was nice to hear people talk in sane ways about policy,” Ananya Roy — a professor of urban planning and social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs — says about a Democratic presidential debate. As the director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, Roy strongly believes that progressive public policy can lead to real societal change. Her work focuses on how research and critical thought can solve problems in L.A. and around the world.
What makes the Institute on Inequality and Democracy unique among other organizations?
One of the key things we’ve done is to think about some of the most pressing social challenges at the moment. That means that we not only analyze these problems, but we like to think about research and action that can address them. I think what makes us different as an institute is that we do our work in solidarity with community organizations and social movements that are on the front lines of struggle. We believe that academic research has a role to play in addressing these challenges, and we build strong partnerships with communities, organizations and movements.
What are the institute’s key areas of focus?
We’re focused on four: housing justice, predatory financialization, policing and incarceration, and sanctuary spaces. Cities like L.A. have seen an incredible increase in housing precarity. Our work is about the policy frameworks that can actually enact housing justice. We also believe that housing precarity is tied up with the ways in which communities of color are policed, excluded and exploited, so we do a lot of work on mass incarceration and policing.
The issue of housing justice is directly related to homelessness, which continues to increase in L.A. County. And this is such a critical area right now, because the homeless are so vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.
The coronavirus crisis is showing that there’s an urgent and immediate need to provide services to the unhoused population. When [announcing the safer-at-home order] in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’s going to start thinking about how hotels and motels can be used to shelter the unhoused. But all of that has been very slow and meager. And the numbers keep growing.
We have a crisis of human life at the moment. Three unhoused people are dying every day on the streets of L.A. The average life expectancy of an unhoused woman in L.A. today is 48 years, and 51 years for an unhoused man. If we had those numbers about any other country in the world, we would be launching some major human rights campaign. This is unacceptable.
A lot of the work we do is with public interest attorneys, looking at municipal ordinances that criminalize the homeless. Some reports show that the city of L.A. spent about $30 million last year on homeless sweeps, which are about destroying the belongings of the homeless. We’re making it even more difficult for them to get out of homelessness. It’s totally inhumane.
L.A.’s housing crisis is attributed to several factors: the lack of affordable housing, the ever-increasing cost of living and stagnant wages. How can the city solve this crisis?
The whole model of affordable housing in California is broken. Basically, the model is: You build a lot of market-rate housing, and then you build a few units of affordable housing. And you hope that it all trickles down. That is not the way we can solve this housing crisis. And this is where public housing really matters.
It also really matters to have the protections in place to keep people in their homes. Our research demonstrates that it’s important to prevent families from becoming homeless. We think about how we can reduce evictions, expand rent stabilization and expand tenant protections.
We also need to think about other models of housing. Community land trusts are one example, where the families are able to own their homes, but the land itself is owned in perpetuity by a nonprofit, so the land is taken off the market. It makes home ownership much more accessible. And it also means that it’s sort of a bulwark against gentrification and displacement.
Gov. Newsom has put a moratorium on evictions to help keep people in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. But is that enough?
That moratorium on eviction is crucial, but the ability of people to pay rent is not going to shift a few weeks from now. The impact of this is going to be long-term. This crisis is exposing the structural inequalities in the U.S., be it unprotected workers having to go in while they’re sick [because they] have no paid sick leave, unhoused communities being left to fend for themselves or people worried about paying rent.
As a society, we created these structural insecurities for people, particularly for working-class communities. If there’s anything to be optimistic about, perhaps things will not continue as normal, because they were never normal for communities that have been facing this kind of crisis. The U.S. is the world’s richest country and perhaps the world’s only rich failed state. I think what we’re seeing is the need for massive public investment in basic lifesaving infrastructure as a protection for working-class and middle-class communities.
All of the issues you focus on have tremendous challenges. How do you remain hopeful and optimistic for a more just and democratic future?
My students give me so much optimism. They’re extraordinary. The University of California system gives me tremendous optimism. This is why I have chosen to stay in the UC system for my entire academic career. I believe the public university is one of the most important systems of socioeconomic mobility and social justice that we have. The fact that we have so many first-generation students — from families and communities that are struggling — gives me hope and optimism.
L.A. is a city of inequality, but it’s also a city of social movement. And these movements have been doing this work for years. It shows how creative and thoughtful communities are and can be in the face of everyday crises. If they can be optimistic, we have no reason not to be. We have to think about how the work we do can support that optimism and hope for a more just future.
How did your interest in these issues come about?
I grew up in Kolkata, India, in a middle-class household that would be seen as very progressive. I was always taught to think critically about poverty and inequality.
I left India and moved to the U.S. on my own at the age of 18 on a scholarship. My experience of immigration is dramatically different from asylum-seeking immigrants, who live under conditions of tremendous precarity. It shapes the current moment of who is secure and who is not. I recognize that I’ve had tremendous privilege. Therefore, it’s my responsibility to use that privilege to do the research and scholarship that’s possible at UCLA.