Prop 21: Wall Street Landlords Vs. California Renters

Billionaire Sam Zell

In the fight over Proposition 21, the line of battle is clear: Wall Street landlords versus California renters. Corporate landlords such as Blackstone Group, Essex Property Trust, and Equity Residential are determined to do anything to protect is their ability to charge wildly inflated, unfair rents — no matter the human cost to middle- and working-class Californians.

Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. Top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits are key for stabilizing California’s housing affordability crisis. It’s why U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the California Democratic Party, and California’s housing justice movement have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.

The need for stable, affordable housing has only taken on added urgency because of the COVID-19 pandemic — people must have shelter to stay safe and healthy.

For Wall Street landlords, none of that matters. Profit is king.

Blackstone Group (led by billionaire CEO Stephen Schwarzman), Equity Residential (led by billionaire and co-founder Sam Zell), and Essex Property Trust (led by multi-millionaire CEO Mike Schall), among a host of other publicly traded real estate investment trusts, have aggressively schemed and plotted to stop rent limits in California — and to kill urgent rent relief for seniors, nurses, and working-class families.

Blackstone, for example, has contributed $7 million to a shell committee that has funneled millions to No on Prop 21: Californians to Protect Affordable Housing. That king-sized cash pays for TV ads and a host of campaign consultants, although Blackstone tries to hide its identity as a No on 21 contributor by using the shell committee. The Yes on Prop 21 campaign has filed both a formal complaint with the state and a lawsuit for violating California’s Political Reform Act, challenging Blackstone’s underhanded tactics.

Essex Property Trust and Equity Residential are the two leading contributors to No on Prop 21: Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association. So far, Essex Property Trust Trust and Equity Residential have shelled out $15 million and $11 million, respectively. Essex Property Trust executive John Eudy and Equity Residential executive Barry Altshuler are also co-chairs of a secretive “executive committee” that calls the shots for the CAA-sponsored committee.

Eudy and Altshuler sign off on misleading TV ads used against Proposition 21, and, under their leadership, have watched Californians for Responsible Housing hide the identities of its contributors. Yes on Prop 21 also filed a formal complaint with the state and a lawsuit against the CAA-sponsored committee.

California’s Fair Political Practices Commission is now examining the fundraising methods used by Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association.

Incredibly, Californians for Responsible Housing believes that Yes on Prop 21’s serious charges are “silly.” That’s what Chris Skinnell, the lawyer for the CAA-sponsored committee, glibly told a reporter. Violating the Political Reform Act and trying to pull the wool over the voters’ eyes are anything but “silly.” That’s why the FPPC has started an investigation.

It’s actually par for the course for the California Apartment Association, which has a long, sordid history of opposing renter protections. From reversing renter protections in El Cerrito to spearheading a sneaky campaign to overturn tenant safeguards in Mountain View to opposing a temporary rent freeze in Santa Ana during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CAA has often been dodgy in its pursuit to stop any and all renter protections.

It all adds up to a multi-million-dollar attack by Wall Street landlords that not only targets the Yes on Prop 21 campaign, but also California renters — who desperately need the protections that Proposition 21 gives them. California voters, though, can send a message to Blackstone, Essex Property Trust, and Equity Residential — by voting “yes” on Prop 21.

Patrick Range McDonald, the author of this article, is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.