Sam Zell, chairman of Equity Residential and Equity LifeStyle Properties, is worth $4.8 billion. He has more money than he knows what to do with. Nicknamed the “Grave Dancer,” Zell has made that mountain of cash by buying distressed properties and getting rich off the bad fortunes of others. He is the quintessential corporate vulture.
So as Californians struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic and housing affordability crisis, what does Zell want to do? Maintain California’s rigged and broken housing market that’s turned him into one of the richest people on the planet — and keep charging sky-high, unfair rents. It’s typical of Zell and other corporate landlords.
Sam Zell is one of the powerful forces behind Big Real Estate’s multi-million-dollar push to stop Proposition 21. The November ballot measure puts limits on unfair, sky-high rents and reins in corporate greed. It’s been endorsed by trusted leaders such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and former United Nations special rapporteur on the Right to Housing Leilani Farha. Zell hates the initiative.
Equity Residential has so far shelled out a whopping $3.7 million to Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association, the main No on Prop 21 committee. That money has been spent on misleading ads and controversial No on 21 spokesman Steve Maviglio, who’s enriched himself by representing Big Business at the expense of hard-working Californians.
In the coming months, Equity Residential will deliver even more big checks to No on Prop 21.
In 2018, Equity Residential was the fourth largest political contributor to stop Proposition 10, which also attempted to put limits on excessive rents in California. More than 525 housing and social injustice organizations, civic groups, and elected leaders endorsed Prop 10, but Big Real Estate funded a massive, and deceitful, TV ad campaign that confused and tricked voters. The initiative lost at the polls, and Zell and other corporate landlords kept charging unfair rents.
Equity Residential, a Chicago-based real estate investment trust (REIT), is the second largest apartment owner in the nation — with 79,200 units and a worth of $30.1 billion. It operates in San Francisco, Southern California, New York, Seattle, and other cities — and Zell, through Equity LifeStyle Properties, is a major landlord of mobile-home communities. He rakes in the dough by squeezing hard-working people — then lives the high life.
Sam Zell owns posh homes in Chicago, Sun Valley, and New York. In Malibu, he has a spectacular mansion worth $10.5 million, with unfettered views of the Pacific Ocean. He also spends big bucks playing poker, flying around the world in a private jet, and riding one of his 13 motorcycles. While seniors, teachers, single-mothers, and college students struggle to pay excessive rents for modest apartments, Zell lives a globe-trotting lifestyle of extravagance and luxury — made off the backs of working people.
But Sam Zell doesn’t just charge excessive rents. Equity Residential and Equity LifeStyle Properties are known for their predatory practices. Equity Residential aggressively pushes tenants out of rent-controlled apartments in order to dramatically raise rents once they move out. Equity Residential also has a reputation of forcing tenants to live in substandard living conditions.
Equity LifeStyle Properties uses similar tactics at its mobile-home communities, where many seniors on fixed incomes live during their retirement. In 2013, Manufactured Housing Action, a national advocacy organization for mobile-home owners, charged that Equity LifeStyle Properties and Sam Zell practiced “vulture” capitalism.
“ELS has been able to push its share value to an all-time high by gouging manufactured homeowners, combining rent increases with decreased community services,” said Pam Bournival, a resident at an Equity LifeStyle Properties mobile-home community in Sarasota, Florida, in a statement released by Manufactured Housing Action. “This is the real Sam Zell: a vulture capitalist unconcerned about actual people.”
Bobbie Hemmerich, a resident at an Equity LifeStyle Properties community in Lewes, Delaware, added: “Under his guidance, ELS seems intent on robbing seniors – mostly women – of a secure retirement. To add salt to the wound, he gives big political contributions to politicians who want to gut Social Security and Medicare.”
Activists, in fact, have charged that Sam Zell and Equity LifeStyle Properties are “gouging Grandma.”
It’s not surprising — Zell has never been praised as the ultimate humanitarian. In January 2008, the billionaire bought the Tribune Company, which owned the Los Angeles Times, for $8.2 billion. Zell expected big profits, but within less than a year, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy — the largest bankruptcy in the history of the American media industry. Zell kept his billions, but under his failed leadership, more than 4,200 people lost their jobs.
Often described as “vulgar” and “crass” in the media, Zell wildly disrespected women at a 2018 REITweek investor conference in New York City. When the billionaire was asked about gender diversity in the workplace, he glibly replied, “I never promoted a woman because she was a woman. I never demoted a woman because she was a woman. My issue is what do you do, what do you produce, how do you interrelate to the rest of the business.”
Zell then stunned the audience by a vulgarity to describe his female employees: “I don’t think there’s ever been a, ‘We gotta get more p – – – y on the block, okay?’”
Sam Zell’s insult was not a one-time thing. Politico reported that Zell made another derisive remark about women during a 2018 panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania. When asked what he thought about investing in South America, Zell replied, “Argentina is like a beautiful woman — her greatest asset is a man’s imagination.”
This is the man who’s shelling out millions to stop Proposition 21 in California. It’s Sam Zell and the California Apartment Association versus longtime fighters for justice, fairness, and equality.
On top of that, California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon and the lead campaign to stop Prop 21 are more than willing to associate themselves with Zell, a predatory landlord who insults women, costs thousands of hard-working people their jobs, and forces seniors and others out of their homes. What does that say about Bannon and his No on 21 campaign? How does that reflect their values?
The fact is, billionaire corporate landlords like Sam Zell and California Apartment Association CEO Tom Bannon have been used to doing whatever they want, whenever they want. They’ve been fueling California’s housing affordability and gentrification crises, which have been especially slamming people of color. And Zell, Bannon, Maviglio, and their buddies will stoop as low as they have to kill Prop 21, even though millions struggle with lost wages and unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s why Prop 21 is needed — the greed and lack of scruples by Zell, Maviglio, Bannon, and the California Apartment Association must be reined in.
In fact, top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits will stabilize California’s housing affordability crisis. Prop 21 will help fix a broken and rigged rental housing market. It will keep middle- and working-class Californians in their homes.