Racially Charged Ad Puts L.A. AIDS Group Back in Middle of Housing Debates

3 min
Michael Weinstein, CEO of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. (April Dembosky/KQED)

The Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, one of the biggest players in California ballot politics over the last few years, has taken center stage in the state's most controversial housing policy debates.

The organization is reviving a push to expand rent control in California and is also leading the attack against a bill to increase housing density in the state. In the process, the foundation and its controversial president, Michael Weinstein, have been met with renewed criticism over its goals and tactics — including accusations that they're stoking racial divisions in their advocacy.

Weinstein's organization bills itself as the largest provider of AIDS medical care in the country, through pharmacies and clinics in 15 states, while also owning and operating hundreds of rental units. In recent years, it has invested millions into local and state ballot measures, impacting everything from rental prices to condoms in adult films.

On Monday, the foundation said it will be pursuing a ballot measure to allow cities and counties to expand rent control, months after a similar measure it backed was soundly defeated on the ballot.

Sponsored

"Among the 17 million renters in California, the suffering is unabated," said Weinstein.

Last year, the foundation spent $23 million in support of Proposition 10, the measure it sponsored to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. The initiative was rejected by 59% of the voters.

Costa-Hawkins largely blocks California cities from expanding rent control to newer buildings, and bans rent caps on single-family homes and condominiums. It also allows landlords to boost the rent to market rate once a tenant moves out, known as vacancy decontrol.

The new initiative would allow cities and counties to pursue a more constrained expansion of rent caps. New buildings would be exempt from rent control for 15 years, and landlords could still raise rents up to 15% when a tenant leaves a unit. Landlords who own two or fewer units would be exempt from any local expansion of rent control.

Critics of rent control expansion argue the initiative will discourage developers from building more units of housing.

"Weinstein certainly remains obsessed with bankrolling these policies that eat away at affordable housing for working families," said Debra Carlton, spokeswoman at the California Apartment Association. "We argue that like Prop. 10, Weinstein’s new initiative would destroy middle class housing."

The announcement of the rent control ballot measure comes days before similar legislation faces its first hearing at the state capitol.

“We’re concerned about legislative inaction," Weinstein said. "The odds are against the legislature passing the limited rent control bill that is coming up shortly.”

Minutes after Weinstein presented his ballot measure proposal, State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) held a press conference in San Francisco denouncing attacks that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation made against his proposal to increase housing density in California.

Senate Bill 50 would require that cities allow four- or five-story apartment buildings near transit stops and job hubs.

According to Federal Communications Commission records, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation spent nearly $90,000 on a local ad buy to oppose the bill, with a commercial airing on San Francisco cable stations that uses comments made by African-American writer and activist James Baldwin from a 1963 interview.

"San Francisco is engaging in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out, it means Negro removal," Baldwin says in the ad, which is also being distributed in a mailer.

A mailer from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, opposing Senate Bill 50. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

Baldwin's quote is referencing redevelopment in San Francisco's Fillmore district, which displaced thousands of residents of the historically African-American neighborhood in the 1960s and 70s.

Weinstein said Senate Bill 50 should require developers to include more affordable housing in their taller developments and that his organization "stands by the mailer 100%."

The Affordable Housing Crisis in California

Wiener said his legislation would keep in place San Francisco's existing requirement for the inclusion of affordable housing, while restricting development on any site occupied by renters in the previous seven years. It would also exempt certain Bay Area neighborhoods at risk of gentrification from the bill's requirements for five years.

"For someone to take advantage of a very real lingering anger and fear about what happened is just unconscionable," Wiener said.

A recent study by the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley found that the legislation has the potential to drastically increase the amount of affordable housing built in the Bay Area, but also that many areas at risk of gentrification do not qualify for delayed implementation under the bill.

Wiener has promised amendments to the legislation before its next hearing on Wednesday in the Senate Governance and Finance committee, and his office said they expect to further define the "sensitive communities" in the bill.

The controversial nature of the Baldwin ad reignited a long-simmering feud between Wiener and Weinstein. In 2014, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed a lawsuit against Wiener over a failed bid to open a pharmacy in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood. In the years since, the two have sparred over condoms in adult films and PrEP, an anti-HIV medication that Weinstein opposes.

On Monday, Weinstein defended his confrontational tactics, saying his opponents are trying to "whip up emotions" and change the subject from arguments over policy.

Weinstein's critics, however, said his controversial tactics get in the way of the work he is trying to do.

"You wonder if it would have been more beneficial for the patients he wants to help by spending money on providing affordable housing instead of all of these games that he plays," said Carlson, of the apartment association.

KQED's Sara Hossaini contributed to this report.