The message on Tim Sullivan’s answering machine was shocking. He’s been receiving phone calls to his private West Hollywood apartment since his pro-Prop 10 ads started airing on TV. But they were mostly disembodied voices saying “No on 10” and then hanging up. This one was scary.
“I know who you are and I saw your commercial and I know you’re a lie. You are not struggling,” the sometimes garbled voicemail said, ordering him to stop or be exposed.
“The one thing I’ve never let anyone know about me is how poor I am, until now,” Sullivan tells the Los Angeles Blade. A resident of West Hollywood since 1987, Sullivan owns a boutique candle-making shop, sits on the board of Best in Drag, and for 17 years during the AIDS crisis, he was a board member for Aid for AIDS. With 27 years in a 12 Step program, he is beloved in the Los Angeles recovery community for providing many alcoholics and addicts their first jobs in sobriety.
“The only thing I really get is Social Security, period. Any money I did have I put into this company,” which is not fairing well these days,” Sullivan explains. “It costs me a lot of money to run this company now. And the only thing I get out of it is kind of a living expense. It’s supplemental. If it’s $1000 a month, it’s a lot. So if you take my $1500 Social Security check, you take $1000 out for my rent, take $300 out for my supplemental Medicare insurance, and another $108 for my insurance for medications which are not covered under “others”—there’s nothing left,” says Sullivan. “It scares me because I don’t think I could live here if they take rent stabilization away from me.”
Sullivan says he did the Yes on 10 ad “to protect people my age from being shifted out” by owners selling their property. “They have so many different ways of getting you out now,” says the almost 78-year old gay man with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). But hate won’t deter him. “I’m not going to be afraid of anything. I’ve come this far,” says Sullivan.
Housing insecurity and homelessness are significant issues in the LGBT community, particularly among LGBT youth and people of color. Rent control was a driving factor in the establishment of the City of West Hollywood in 1984, an effort lead by renters, seniors and gays—three categories Sullivan now fits.
Proposition 10, the Local Rent Control Initiative, on the Nov. 6 ballot would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act that limits the use of rent control in California and allow counties and cities to adopt rent control ordinances regulating how much landlords can charge tenants. Prop 10 would not allow government to reduce a fair rate of return for landlords.
“The need to have affordable housing is important for all Californians,” West Hollywood City Councilmember and law professor John Heilman tells the Los Angeles Blade. “But there’s a particular need for LGBTQ individuals. Often times there’s lack of family support, which is what drives people to leave their home communities to relocate to California, which is more supportive—but obviously the housing cost here is quite high, and it’s a big shock to people when they move here from other states.”
The West Hollywood City Council supports Prop 10, says Heilman, one of WeHo’s co-founders. “We’ve had rent control laws from the very beginning of our establishment as a city,” he says. “We all understand the challenge that many renters face with rising housing costs. And Prop 10 would restore to local communities the ability to control rent upon a vacancy.”
Local “authority to draft ordinances that makes sense for their communities,” is key, says Heilman, since rent control is not necessarily the best solution for every city in California.
The Prop 10 battle asks which solution is best to resolve California’s housing crisis and the harmful displacement of renters: repeal Costa-Hawkins or let the market determine housing and rental costs?
Researchers Nicole Montojo and Stephen Barton, Ph.D., authors of a Sept. 19 research brief published by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California/Berkeley, on housing and rent control, feel the need to answer that question is urgent.
“Rent control is really about addressing the issues the people are facing right now, which the other [housing] strategies are unable to do. If we don’t have rent control right now—if we wait for building to catch up; if we wait for us to amass enough funding to pay for that affordable housing—it will be too late. People are being displaced right now,” Montojo tells the Los Angeles Blade.
The coalition of property developers, real estate investors, landlords and others opposed to Prop 10 insist the initiative would discourage development of new properties during the housing crisis.
“It would be disastrous, not only for apartment developers but for California. No one would invest, development would stop, and the housing crisis would be exacerbated,” Alexander Goldfarb, an analyst with Sandler O’Neill & Partners, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Heilman is skeptical. “I’ve always questioned this idea that rent control prevents or impedes new construction,” he says. “New construction has always been exempt under all rent control ordinances and under state law. The idea that somehow or another new construction would be deterred by rent control just doesn’t make sense.”
Montojo and Barton contend that free market solutions are insufficient to meet the needs of burdened tenants. “For a variety of reasons,” Barton says, “it’s not that simple. Housing is not like heirloom tomatoes or plaid shirts. It’s a much more expensive good, and it’s much more difficult to deliver.”
Fixes proposed as alternatives to rent control would take too long to make a discernible impact, the researchers say. “California is now operating at a rate in which it will only add one percent of supply to its housing stock,” Barton says. “If you can overcome all the barriers—we have a shortage of construction workers now, for example—and doubled the supply, you’d still be adding only two percent of new housing stock to the supply. It’s a very slow process, even when it’s working.”
Additionally, setting aside units increases the supply incrementally “but that alone is not going to solve the problem. We also need to build permanently supportive housing for people who are not able to maintain on their own—people with various mental/physical disabilities, and certain seniors—they need additional support. Just building the units isn’t always enough,” Heilman says.
But “it’s difficult to explain to people why the supply doesn’t respond to the demand,” Montojo suggests.
And that makes arguing to vote for Prop 10 difficult.
At issue, Heilman explains, is how homeowners who live in single-family homes or condos—people who are not directly affected by rent control, as they are exempt in most jurisdictions—are going to vote. “Are they going to side with their friends and neighbors who are renters?” he asks. “Or are they just going to vote against it or not vote at all on it?”
The No on 10 arguments are easier for voters to understand, Montojo says. “The supply/demand argument tends to stick in people’s minds, whereas getting into the details of the importance of rent control is a much longer conversation that needs to be had.” And “it’s hard to get at that, to the ballot language that people are seeing when they’re responding to polls.”
The Yes on 10 coalition is portraying their opposition in simple terms: greedy corporate landlords and real estate investors who want to guarantee climbing profits even at the expense of widespread displacement, housing insecurity, and homelessness.
A television ad released Sept. 30 linked four major donors in the No on 10 camp to President Donald Trump, hoping the predicted “blue wave” of Democratic voters will throw their support behind Prop 10, which is endorsed by the California Democratic Party.
Developers like those featured in the Yes on 10 spot, Barton says, have capitalized on the demand for housing in coastal California, reaping astronomical profits.
“In terms of somebody’s wealth, we’re in a situation where people will buy properties for as much as 20 times the value of the net operating income. In other words, people will settle for a 5 percent rate of return. This means people have a tremendously highly valued asset whose value keeps going up. They can not only draw on the money, but they can borrow against it or use it as a security in other borrowing, often to buy even more property and expand their empire,” he says.
“What the opposition stands to lose is pretty obvious. If you own existing housing in, especially, coastal California, you’re getting massive increases in rents,” Barton continues. “This is a matter of tremendous windfall profits. Landlords didn’t double the quality of the buildings they’re providing. It’s just that the demand for access to locations that are high on jobs and amenities has increased. They’re getting a whole lot more money without having to invest much of their own money in fixing up the buildings or improving the buildings.”
Montojo feels Prop 10 is a referendum on the state’s values; a measure of how much voters care about who is pushed out of local communities and displaced because they can no longer afford housing.
“If we allow rent to continue to rise,” Montojo says, “and if we don’t make a change right now to stabilize renters, this means people will be excluded. We wanted to call attention to the need to make an intentional decision about who we say is part of California and what that means in terms of the policy decisions that we make.”
Decisions that impact Tim Sullivan and those for whom he speaks.