Housing Is A Human Right California YIMBY corporate landlords

California YIMBY Joins Corporate Landlords to Kill Rent Control Measure

In Featured, News by Patrick Range McDonald

In a move that doesn’t surprise housing activists, California YIMBY, the land-use lobbying group for Big Tech, has officially opposed the Justice for Renters Act – the November ballot measure that seeks to end statewide rent control restrictions. California YIMBY is effectively joining corporate landlords who are spending millions to kill the initiative – and turning its back on the housing justice organizations, labor unions, and social justice groups that support the Justice for Renters Act. Many of those same corporate landlords are also mired in the RealPage scandal for colluding to wildly inflate rents.

California YIMBY has always had a contentious relationship with the housing justice movement, and its opposition to the Justice for Renters Act has been expected. For years, the group, founded by Big Tech executives, has aggressively pushed a trickle-down, luxury-housing agenda, saying that the housing affordability crisis can only be solved by flooding the rental housing market with market-rate apartments, which will eventually lower rents for poor and middle- and working-class tenants. YIMBYs disturbingly call the process “filtering,” trying awkwardly to avoid the label of “trickle-down.”

That controversial agenda, which activists say fuels gentrification and displacement in working-class neighborhoods, including communities of color, has also been championed by the real estate industry, which would profit from more luxury apartments with sky-high rents. Big Real Estate, and now California YIMBY, has also used the trickle-down housing argument as a political weapon to kill tenant protections such as rent control. Despite studies that say otherwise, California YIMBY and Big Real Estate claim that rent control will stop housing production and therefore put a kink in the trickle-down effect.

Activists say the “filtering” argument is not only convoluted – more luxury housing for a housing affordability crisis that’s devastating the poor and middle and working class? – but also California YIMBY and corporate landlords continually ignore key studies by the University of Southern California, UC Berkeley, and a group of prominent economists that found rent control does not impact the construction of homes. The economists, in a letter to the Biden administration, went so far as to say that the real estate industry’s anti-rent control arguments are outdated and wrong. That goes for California YIMBY’s position, too.

Instead, researchers at USC and UC Berkeley and the economists found that rent control is a key tool to stabilize the housing affordability crisis, backing arguments made by activists. Rent control is especially needed for poor and middle- and working-class tenants who are being hit hardest by excessive rents and face the prospect of homelessness – a major UC San Francisco study found that sky-high rents are fueling the homelessness crisis in California. 

In addition, a recent study by Eviction Lab, the prestigious research institute at Princeton University, found that unaffordable rents are linked to higher mortality rates. With lives on the line, activists say, rent control is needed more than ever. California YIMBY and corporate landlords rarely, if ever, mention the Eviction Lab study.

Far different from Big Real Estate’s narrow, self-serving agenda, housing justice organizations, including Housing Is A Human Right, advocate for an urgent, multi-pronged approach to solve the housing affordability and homelessness crises. It’s called the “3 Ps”: protect tenants through rent control and other protections; preserve existing affordable housing, not demolish it to make way for luxury housing; and produce new affordable and homeless housing. The 3 Ps, activists say, directly help the tenants who need it the most. California YIMBY, however, has consistently clashed with the housing justice movement over that approach.

Around 2017, California YIMBY was born out of a burgeoning YIMBY movement in the Bay Area – and its beginnings were highly controversial. Activists in San Francisco and elsewhere found the YIMBY movement, which was largely made up of younger white people who worked in the tech industry, to be patronizing, threatening, and offensive.

“It’s been absolutely ugly,” Bay Area activist Shanti Singh told Shelterforce in 2019, describing her interactions with YIMBYs. “A really nasty three years.”

Maria Zamudio, another Bay Area activist, told In These Times, “They’re like, ‘Just build housing, you stupid brown people! I moved here last week, and I need a place to live!’”

Fernando Marti, co-director of the San Francisco-based Council of Housing Organizations, wrote in a Shelterforce column: “But according to YIMBY leaders, now we equity advocates are the problem, too, little different from the NIMBYs, rabid progressives who are too naive or ideological to understand how the market really works. In this story line, in the name of fighting evictions and displacement, we progressives, we communities of color, we poor people and immigrants, we working-class queers stupidly don’t realize that luxury development now will eventually become the affordable housing of the future!”


YIMBYs at San Francisco counter-protest

YIMBYs were so forceful in their trickle-down housing push that they held a counter-protest at San Francisco City Hall in 2018, heckling and confronting housing and social justice activists, who were holding their own protest over a controversial, YIMBY-supported bill that would have triggered gentrification and displacement crises in cities throughout California. YIMBYs were so rough with the activists and their supporters that a 77-year-old Asian woman fainted – and was rushed to the hospital.

Wing Hoo Leung, president of the Chinatown-based Community Tenants Association, told the San Francisco Examiner at the time of the incident: “Our members were intimidated by YIMBY. They felt threatened.” Leung added, “I think the YIMBY have no heart.”

Weeks after that shocking clash, Anya Lawler, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law & Poverty, told the Los Angeles Times, “The YIMBY movement has a white privilege problem. I don’t think they recognize it. They don’t understand poverty. They don’t understand what that’s like, who our clients really are, and what their lived experience is.”

That was six years ago, but California YIMBY and other YIMBY leaders have not changed their ways. They still routinely dismiss activists’ concerns about gentrification and displacement in working-class neighborhoods and communities of color, and California YIMBY refused to endorse Proposition 10, in 2018, and Proposition 21, in 2020. Those ballot measures, supported by a broad coalition of housing justice organizations, labor unions, and social justice groups, attempted to end statewide rent control restrictions. Corporate landlords, though, shelled out $175.4 million to kill the initiatives, with California YIMBY choosing to watch from the sidelines.

Housing Is A Human Right and its parent organization, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, sponsored Prop 10 and Prop 21. AHF and HHR are now leading the fight to pass the Justice for Renters Act. AHF is the world’s largest HIV/AIDS medical-care nonprofit, serving more than two million clients in 46 countries, including South Africa, India, China, Mexico, and the United States. Through its HIV treatment and prevention services, in many of the world’s poorest nations, AHF has saved millions of lives around the globe. 


AHF march in South Africa

Founded in 1987, in Los Angeles, AHF started as a housing and medical-care provider for terminally ill AIDS patients who were largely abandoned by hospitals and politicians. Decades later, in 2017, AHF went back to its roots when the worsening housing affordability crisis in California was negatively impacting its clients and employees. AHF started up Healthy Housing Foundation, a housing provider division, and Housing Is A Human Right, a housing advocacy division.

From the get go, AHF’s housing agenda has been anti-gentrification, pro-rent control, pro-affordable housing, pro-homeless housing, and pro-tenant rights. But AHF’s work routinely clashed with California YIMBY’s policy goals – namely, to allow the real estate industry to build, unfettered by regulations, as much luxury housing as possible.

A few years ago, California YIMBY tried to ramrod two pro-gentrification bills, known as SB 827 and SB 50, through the legislative process in Sacramento. California YIMBY showed no concern for the plight of poor and middle- and working-class residents, and AHF successfully pushed back, helping to kill both pieces of legislation. California YIMBY and the YIMBY movement have targeted AHF for payback ever since.

Just recently, for example, in the press release that announced California YIMBY’s opposition to the Justice for Renters Act, CEO Brian Hanlon described AHF President and Co-founder Michael Weinstein as a “pharmaceutical executive,” purposefully misleading the public and dismissing Weinstein’s decades-long work as an AIDS activist. Hanlon and California YIMBY also rolled out, in the press release, the same talking points used by Big Real Estate to slam the initiative and AHF.

Hanlon is a relative newcomer to activism. Around 2016, he co-founded a YIMBY-type group called California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund in the Bay Area, and became a high-profile figure in the YIMBY movement. But, Hanlon told the East Bay Times, in 2017, that he hoped “to work part-time at a natural wine bar after the YIMBY movement achieves greater organizational stability.” An odd, perhaps telling, aspiration for any serious activist, especially when comparing Hanlon to Michael Weinstein.

While Hanlon was studying Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia in the early 2000s, Weinstein was taking part in the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. AHF had been operating for more than 12 years, offering free HIV drug treatment to low-income patients. Weinstein had watched his best friend die an excruciating death from AIDS complications in 1989, and he didn’t want others to go through the same life-ending ordeal. 

At the conference, two AIDS activists from South Africa approached Weinstein – with the government largely ignoring the AIDS crisis, they desperately needed AHF’s help. After meeting dying AIDS patients in nearby communities, Weinstein moved into action, opening AHF’s first global clinic in Umlazi, South Africa, in 2002. The healthcare center has been saving lives ever since – and AHF has expanded to such countries as Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda, Cambodia, Thailand, Poland, Estonia, Brazil, Haiti, Peru, and Chile.

Brian Hanlon, though, ignored Weinstein’s life-saving work. Instead, through the press release, he aimed to damage AHF and Weinstein to further the California YIMBY and Big Real Estate agenda, coming up with the wholly inaccurate “pharmaceutical executive” tag.


California YIMBY CEO Brian Hanlon

It’s par for the course for Hanlon and California YIMBY. In 2021, Housing Is A Human Right sent Hanlon a letter, demanding complete transparency about who funds California YIMBY – a nonprofit doesn’t have to name its donors on tax filings. Since California YIMBY lobbies state politicians to pass land-use bills that impact California’s 39 million residents, it was a reasonable and necessary request. Hanlon, though, never responded, and California YIMBY has yet to be fully transparent about who finances its operations.

Activists suspect real estate insiders have sent sizable checks to California YIMBY, and Hanlon admitted, in 2017, to be more than willing to take cash from developers.

Housing Is A Human Right does know, however, that numerous Big Tech executives have contributed to the California YIMBY Victory Fund, a political action committee that delivers campaign contributions to politicians. Those executives include Kenneth Duda, Nat Friedman, Jared Friedman, Patrick Collison, among others. Tech honchos Zack Rosen and Nat Friedman founded California YIMBY, installing Brian Hanlon as the CEO.

Over the years, Big Tech has increasingly moved into the real estate and housing arena, looking to rake in billions in profits. One prime example is RealPage, a tech firm in Texas that helps corporate landlords set rent prices through its software program. But if rent control was expanded in California, RealPage would be unable to help its clients charge higher and higher rents year after year. The tech firm understood the business ramifications of the end of statewide rent control restrictions in California, and contributed $500,000 to the No on Prop 10 campaign in 2018 – Prop 10 would have repealed those restrictions. That $500,000 contribution wasn’t spent and carried over to the No on Prop 21 campaign in 2020, which would have reformed statewide rent control restrictions.

So Big Tech as well as Big Real Estate have serious profit motives to kill any rent control ballot measure in California.

RealPage and its corporate clients, which include Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, and AvalonBay Communities, are now mired in federal and state lawsuits and a Department of Justice investigation. Through RealPage’s software program, the lawsuits charge, corporate landlords have worked together, illegally, to wildly inflate rents. A ProPublic investigation first broke the nationwide scandal

Activists say that the RealPage scandal is one more reason why statewide rent control restrictions must end in California – only rent regulations will protect tenants against the predatory business tactics of Big Tech and Big Real Estate. In fact, six corporate landlords that are involved in the RealPage scandal are also contributing to the campaign to stop the Justice for Renters Act.

For years, though, California YIMBY and the YIMBY movement have been virtually silent whenever a new scandal pops up involving corporate landlords. YIMBYs have also become increasingly anti-rent control, with California YIMBY’s opposition to the Justice for Renters Act underscoring that fact. California YIMBY is now joining scandal-plagued corporate landlords to kill the pro-rent control measure.

In the end, California YIMBY decided to not stand with UNITE HERE! Local 11, Veterans’ Voices, Pomona United Stable Housing Coalition, Social Security Works, the California Nurses Association, ACLU SoCal, United Native Americans, Climate Justice for Africa, Los Angeles Ecovillage Institute, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, and other endorsers of the Justice for Renters Act

Instead, California YIMBY chose to join the California Apartment Association, Essex Property Trust, AvalonBay Communities, Equity Residential, Greystar, and other corporate landlords to kill the initiative – and to stop the expansion of rent control in California. Or put another way, California YIMBY is once again standing with the real estate billionaires – and ignoring the poor and middle and working class. As the old saying goes, you are the company you keep.

Over the years, California YIMBY has tried desperately to come off as a housing justice organization. Its firm opposition to the Justice for Renters Act, and now working with corporate landlords to kill it, shows California YIMBY’s truest colors.

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