LOS ANGELES – Election Day can’t come soon enough. While Washington squabbles over desperately needed federal relief packages, Northern Californian is literally on fire, a pall of unhealthy air hangs over unhoused people, and a new survey released Wednesday from NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals that at least half the households in Los Angeles face serious financial problems because of the COVID-19 crisis.
With savings drained, renters — especially hard hit people of color — are struggling to pay landlords, pay bills, put food on the table, and care for their kids – many of whom are now also struggling with thoughts of suicide, according to March For Our Lives. And while lying long knives hired by corporate landlords such as the Blackstone Group, Essex Property Trust, and Equity Residential are out to slice and dice any effort to prevent an apocalypse of homelessness, the Yes on 21 campaign is reaching out to everyone from seniors and veterans to single mothers and college students about the critical importance of voting for Proposition 21.
Proposition 21 is the November ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases. It protects people against corporate landlord greed and keeps them in their homes. It’s supported by trusted civil leaders and organizations, such as U.S. Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, California U.S. House representatives Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, the California Democratic Party, and the Los Angeles Times, among numerous others.
To better educate Democrats about the initiatives it supports, the California Democratic Party hosted “Prop Talk: Yes on 21,” a zoom event on Wednesday, September 9.
Moderated by Yes on 21 Policy Director Susie Shannon, the panel featured Kevin de Leon, former President Pro Tem of the California Senate and member-elect of the Los Angeles City Council representing District 14; LA City Councilmember David Ryu, who represents the 4th CD; and rent control experts Larry Gross, who has been the Executive Director of the grassroots, multi-ethnic tenants’ rights organization Coalition For Economic Survival since its inception in 1973; and Taisha Brown, a homeowner and landlord who made history last year when she was elected Chair of the California Democratic Party African American Caucus (CDPAAC), along with three other Black women.
Shannon started out by framing the need for Proposition 21 in the dire “extraordinary times” context of Californians facing one crisis after another on top of a global pandemic.
De Leon concurred, noting the coronavirus, wildfires, and “the eviction moratoriums that are set to expire in the immediate future. I can say that extraordinary times require extraordinary action. Never have we seen, collectively, the number of individuals living in our streets, in our alleyways, in our parks, overpasses and underpasses, in cars that we have seen in our lifetime.”
Proposition 21 “is an opportunity to empower local officials up and down the state of California, making sure that in a state like California, a state that values diversity and inclusivity, that politically, that we stand up and we do the right thing, especially for people of color.”
De Leon brought the argument home. “Los Angeles is the epicenter of our homelessness [crisis] nationwide,” he said, noting that the district he is about to lead, District 14, “is, in fact, ground zero for the entire nation when it comes to homelessness.” Prop 21 is “going to make sure that we give them a roof over their head and the dignity and respect that they deserve.”
Brown said she is “all in for Proposition 21,” noting that despite having the fifth largest economy in the world, California is “number one in homelessness,” adding that “a little over 40% of those people are Black people — Black mothers, Black fathers, their children, homeless — kids just sleeping out on the sidewalk. And I think it’s a shame because we have the money and the resources within the state to ensure that we have homes for everyone.”
Ryu, who identified Proposition 21 as a “very important measure,” also opened with statistics.
“In Los Angeles County alone, one in five households that are renters have lost their jobs. More and more people are spending more and more of their limited amount of funds on rent. And we have over 120,000 households in LA County that are at risk of becoming homeless,” he said. “We need to make sure that this passes because Prop 21 will fix the overreach of Costa Hawkins [the 1995 state law that severely restricts local rent control policies] and give local cities like Los Angeles greater control over our housing policies that have life or death consequences.”
With the pandemic, “Prop 21 is needed, like needed more than ever before,” Ryu said. “We shouldn’t just vote for it, but we need to organize, educate and mobilize around Prop 21 because we have to pass Prop 21, like our homes depend on.”
Renters’ rights and housing affordability expert Larry Gross underscored the possibility of a coming apocalypse.
“We keep referring to what we’re facing as a ‘housing crisis,’ but that really understates our situation. It’s really a housing catastrophe of biblical proportions. And people are suffering. Here in Los Angeles, we’re a city of renters: 62% of the people who live here are renters. And yet we’re the most unaffordable U.S. city, as far as rent burden goes, on tenants. More than half of all LA renter households live in unaffordable housing, paying upwards of 30% of their income on housing. One in three households spend at least 50% of their income on rent. LA has highest poverty rate in our nation at 26%.”
The situation is dire.
“One to one out of every four households are living below the poverty level,” Gross continued. “And LA County is home to five of the 10 most overcrowded zip codes, including the number one overcrowded zip code in the US. At the same time, we’ve lost some 27,000 affordable housing units due to the Ellis Act — which is another law we have to get rid of — which allows landlords to go out of the rental business and convert [to luxury condos]. And between 2001 and 2015, while rents grew in LA at 32%, the real income adjusted for inflation dropped 3%. So, for people living here in LA, you would need about $110,000 annual income to secure an average two bedroom apartment. If you’re a minimum wage worker, you need about four or five or six minimum wage jobs to afford the rent. At the same time, we’re in need of a half a million new affordable housing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made everything much worse in LA.
“Over 10% of adults under 65 are uninsured and where California has over 745,000 COVID cases and nearly 13,000 deaths [251,024 cases and 6,128 deaths in LA County as of Sept. 10], almost two thirds of the households in greater Los Angeles area have experienced earning declines over the past four months and, of course, that hits communities of color the hardest. So we’re facing a 17 ½ % unemployment rate here — and the hardest hit are Latino and African American communities.”
Handcuffed by existing laws, local governments have only been able to provide Band-Aid measures to address their local housing needs “when we truly need major surgery,” Gross said. “We do need to build more housing. But we need to build affordable housing, not luxury housing, because we’re never going to build our way out of our affordable housing crisis, because the money doesn’t exist to provide that affordable housing.” Nor will existing affordable housing be replaced if not preserved.
“Proposition 21 is a key way to ensure the preservation of our existing affordable housing. That’s why we all need to do everything and anything to ensure that this proposition passes in November because you know the landlords are going to be out there with millions and millions of dollars to confuse and distort the issue. But we have the people, we have the renters, we have the support of the Democratic Party, and we need to ensure that Prop 21 passes.”
De Leon pointed out that undocumented immigrants are particularly hard hit since they do not receive federal unemployment dollars at a time of historic unemployment during the COVID-19 crisis. So even with the eviction moratoriums, with no ability to earn a living – how can they pay back rent?
Noting that David Roberti, his predecessor in the State Senate, fought for 12 years to prevent passage of versions of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act in the 1990s, “a very dark difficult decade for many Californians, but especially people of color, with the passage of Prop 187, which denied undocumented immigrants access to non-emergency healthcare, public education and other public service, Prop 209, which eliminated consideration of affirmative action in public employment, contracting and education, and Prop 227, which eliminated bilingual education.
“So the evictions, this tsunami neutral global pandemic, impacts everybody but disproportionately impacts people of color,” said de Leon. “And that’s why — if we’re going to advocate for criminal justice, environmental justice, climate change justice, if we’re going to advocate for human and civil rights and immigration reform — our most primal need as human beings is food and shelter.”
If LA is already finding it difficult dealing with 150,000 homeless individuals and family members today, “how are we going to handle millions of folks who will be living on the streets in the immediate future?” de Leon asked. “And these are working families, and that’s why we need Prop 21. Now.”
CES’ Gross added another historical context, noting that “under a hostile Costa-Hawkins, you cannot control single family dwellings and most rent control laws.” Since its passage in 1995, “our single family market has been totally corrupted by Wall Street due to the  foreclosure crisis. All these Wall Street entities like Blackstone and Invitation Homes have gobbled up these homes — primarily in low income communities of color like South LA or East LA, and they own hundreds and thousands of single family rentals and they’re exempt.”
Prop 21, Gross said, “says, well, if you are a small owner and you have one unit that you’re renting out – you’re exempt. But if you’re a big corporate landlord who owns hundreds and thousands of units of single family dwellings, you should have those units put under rent control. And that’s why it’s so crucial to ensure that not only we protect our existing laws, but we are able to cover those people who are in need that are not currently covered by rent control.”
This is not rent forgiveness or rent relief, for which there are programs. “We are talking about a freeze in the increase in rent,” Gross said.
Prop 21, Susie Shannon said in summary, “prevents homelessness and is an anti-gentrification initiative; establishes local control for rental assistance that is not there right now; provides a 15-year exemption for new construction; provides for 5% over three years increase in rent, maximum, for a vacant unit; and it doesn’t affect small landlords. It only affects corporate landlords, for the most part, and these kind of large equity firms that have been buying up neighborhoods then raising the rent on entire neighborhoods and pushing out families.”
Shannon asked people to actively support Prop 21 through short “Yes, I’m for Prop 21” tweets and posts on Facebook and Instagram, as well as phone banking and texting “and anything that you can do to help us reach out to voters. Tell your family, friends, fellow Democrats. Please, just spread the word.”
Karen Ocamb is an award-winning journalist and staff writer for the Yes on 21 campaign, where this article originally appeared.