Housing Is A Human Right Big Real Estate Sam Zell California Proposition 21

Eyes on the Street: Barons of Big Real Estate Want You to Help Them Make Billions

In News by Patrick Range McDonald

In a few months, Californians will vote by mail or walk into the local polling place and decide if Proposition 21, the ballot measure that limits unfair rent increases, should be passed. For middle- and working-class residents who’ve been slammed by skyrocketing rents for years, it’s a no-brainer: everyone should vote “yes” on Prop 21. Others, for some reason, aren’t so sure. That undecided group should take a hard look at who wants to stop Prop 21. The No on 21 camp, desperate to keep charging wildly inflated rents so they can keep making wildly outsized profits, is not filled with angels.

So far, No on 21, led by the California Apartment Association, the landlord lobbying group that’s never seen a renter protection it doesn’t want to kill, has raised $19,098,950 from four campaign committees. The big daddy of those four is Californians for Responsible Housing, sponsored by the CAA. It has raked in $15,385,252, according to California Secretary of State filings. Unsurprisingly, the top contributors to the CAA-backed committee are an unholy bunch known for slamming seniors with outrageous rent hikes, discriminating against people with disabilities, and living lives of luxury off the backs of hard-working Californians.

Take UDR, a real estate investment trust based in Colorado and one of the largest apartment owners in the nation. It has delivered $757,513 to Californians for Responsible Housing. Led by CEO Tom Toomey, UDR operates luxury-housing buildings in California, Colorado, Florida, Texas, and other states. In 2012, though, the National Fair Housing Alliance and the North Texas Fair Housing Center hit UDR with a lawsuit for violating the Fair Housing Act.

“The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Dallas,” the Denver Post reported, “alleges that since at least 2007, UDR and several of its affiliates have engaged in a continuous pattern or practice of discrimination against people with disabilities by designing or constructing multifamily dwellings and common- and public-use areas without required accessibility features.”

For UDR, keeping construction costs down was more important than ensuring a person using a wheelchair could enter a closet without getting stuck in a doorway or make dinner without getting jammed in the kitchen with one’s back to a burning hamburger in a frying pan. Dealing with those kinds of issues day after day is exhausting, unsafe, and unlawful. Hence the lawsuit. Less than a year later, UDR settled in court, paying the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and agreeing to renovate three apartment complexes up to code.

Then there’s Essex Property Trust, which has shelled out $2,850,000 to Californians for Responsible Housing and is another real estate investment trust that’s traded on Wall Street. Led by CEO Mike Schall, Essex Property Trust made headlines for hammering tenants in San Mateo and Fremont with huge rent increases that especially impacted seniors, forcing them out of their longtime homes.

“Since buying the [San Mateo] property in 2006,” the East Bay Times reported, “Essex had raised rents aggressively, prompting an exodus that included fixed-income senior citizens who lived there for decades.”

In many cases, the San Francisco Examiner reported, Essex Property Trust raised rents at that building by $400 per month in a single year — an enormous annual hike of $4,800. 

Essex Property Trust is the top contributor to Californians for Responsible Housing, which speaks volumes about the people trying to stop Proposition 21. They’ll harm anyone — even someone’s grandma on a tight budget — to make gigantic profits. In fact, they want grandma to subsidize their extravagant mansions and flashy lifestyles.

Look at billionaire Sam Zell (pictured above), the co-founder of Equity Residential, another real estate investment trust. Equity Residential is the second largest apartment owner in the U.S., worth $30.1 billion. The corporate landlord is the second largest contributor to Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association, shelling out $2,250,560. 

By charging unfair, sky-high rents and forcing longtime tenants out of rent-regulated apartments so he can jack up the rents on new tenants, Zell has amassed a fortune that funds swanky homes in Malibu, Chicago, New York, and Sun Valley, pays for a private jet, and finances his collection of 13 motorcycles. 

In the meantime, millions of Californians struggle with unemployment and lost wages because of the pandemic, and can barely scrape up the cash to pay the rent for a small, one-bedroom apartment — nevermind having the money for a down payment on a modest, single-family home that would be dwarfed by Zell’s Malibu palace. And millions of Americans, including those in California, now face the prospect of homelessness because of a massive eviction crisis triggered by predatory landlords who want to get rid of tenants who can’t pay excessive rents due to the financial devastation of the COVID-19 outbreak.

These are the people — billionaire Sam Zell, multi-millionaires Mike Schall and Tom Toomey, California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon, and a host of others — who want Californians to oppose Proposition 21. The Barons of Big Real Estate want you to help them keep making the big bucks. The No on 21 campaign will spin things in a different way and try to scare the living daylights out of everyone, but that’s what it boils down to. Zell, Schall, Toomey, and Bannon want you to help them make billions — no matter who gets hurt.

Now look at who supports Proposition 21, who wants you to keep your home and not get pushed into the streets. Those people are not billionaires skiing down the slopes of Sun Valley on a crisp December afternoon. They’re U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, the Rev. Al Sharpton, labor leader and state senator Maria Elena Durazo, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, UNITE HERE Local 11, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and list goes on. The Barons of Big Real Estate versus Huerta, Durazo, and the L.A. Tenants Union? It’s an easy decision. Yes on Proposition 21.

“Eyes on the Street” is a regular column by Patrick Range McDonald, an award-winning reporter and advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.