For decades, Sheila Kuehl’s house in Santa Monica has served as a hub for political networking, fundraising, and advocating for progressive issues, candidates, and campaigns with her close friend and senior advisor Torie Osborn. Renown in California for her historic work fighting for gender and LGBTQ equality, Kuehl’s legislative career has long included representing renters in Santa Monica and West Hollywood. “Strongly” endorsing Prop 21, the Rental Affordability Act, is a matter of good governance.
Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, 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. That’s why Reps. Maxine Waters, Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, the California Democratic Party, the ACLU, the California Nurses Association, the California Alliance for Retired Americans, Black Lives Matter, the Los Angeles Times, and a slew of LGBTQ organizations and individuals — including LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin and LA Unified School Board member Jackie Goldberg — have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.
Kuehl’s endorsement derives naturally from her long history of trying to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. A popular teenage actress who played Zelda Gilroy on the 1959/early 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, she suffered anti-gay discrimination that cost her a spinoff show and subsequent blacklisting. Nonetheless, she prevailed. She attended UCLA, then Harvard Law School where she became the second woman to win the prestigious Ames Moot Court Competition. Afterwards, panel judge Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall told her, “Lady, I like your style.”
Kuehl’s historic election to the California State Assembly in 1994 as the first openly gay person in the state legislature (see the documentary “Political Animals” for more) was hailed as one of the only bright spots in the dark gloom that year as Newt Gingrich profoundly changed the Republican Party from moderate/conservative to unscrupulous extreme right-wing Bible-thumpers. But she kept focused on passing legislation that would expand human rights under law. And while much attention was paid to new Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signing the then-Assembly Judiciary Committee chair’s historic LGBT student bill, AB 537, on Oct. 2, 1999, before an historic ANGLE gala with President Bill Clinton, he also signed Kuehl’s Assembly Bill 1670 that expanded the Fair Employment and Housing Act to include: “Prohibiting a housing owner from harassing a tenant or prospective tenant on any basis protected under FEHA, such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or disability.”
“If California is to serve as a model for America’s new and diverse society, every person must feel secure that their civil rights will be protected,” Kuehl told the LA Times, “especially where they live and where they work. Discrimination has no place in a just society.”
“I was in the legislature in the early nineties with [Assemblymembers] Jim Costa and Phil Hawkins brought a bill to deny local government the ability to enact rent control ordinances. Before that, only eight local governments in the whole state had enacted serious rent control ordinances in modern times,” Kuehl says. “People forget that in World War Two, there were very serious rent control ordinances in California, especially in Southern California, because people were needed to work in the aircraft plants. And everybody was trying to make a bazillion dollars off the fact that everybody was moving to Southern California. So rent control was enacted. But under Costa-Hawkins, you could not enact a rent control ordinance in your local city, even if everybody was for it, even if the city council wanted it — in some cities for any housing that had been built after 1978 and in every other city, anything built after 1995.”
Well, says Kuehl, “that is everything built in the last 25 years may not have rent control applied to it! So, what’s happened to us is we have a crushing homelessness problem. And though everyone said at the beginning, ‘Oh, these are sick people. These are mentally ill people.’ That is not what the data shows now. What the data shows now is that because of Costa-Hawkins and the fact that we cannot enact any rent stabilization ordinances that mean anything and that cover all of our housing — people are being priced out of their housing every day, hundreds every day. So that even though we house now over 10,000 people a year who are homeless and buying shelter for 20,000 more, so many people fall into homelessness. It overtakes that number and it grows every year.”
“So, I am strongly for Prop 21, because all it does is to say that local cities and counties in the unincorporated areas can enact rent control ordinances if their governing bodies want to do that,” says Kuehl, who was elected to the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2014, representing nearly two million people in the 3rd District.
Kuehl doesn’t let her some of her former Democratic colleagues go unscathed.
“In 1994, there was a Republican majority elected in the Assembly that lasted for two years. But in 1996, when the Democrats took the Assembly back, it was still like it is in Congress where taking a Republican seat into the Democratic category does not mean that you get a progressive Democrat. What you get is the somewhat fearful Democrat who essentially is concerned about the challenge that will come in the next year, because like Congress, they run every two years,” Kuehl says. “So we got quite a few moderate Democrats and they were afraid because the realtors were putting in a lot of money against them and renters are not organized to help people win elections. And so even if you’re for them, you’re at risk because no one supports you. So there were enough votes even after we took it back in 96 to enact Costa Hawkins.”
Kuehl suggests that’s what happened with Prop 10, a previous attempt to repeal Costa-Hawkins.
“We saw in the last election where this measure was brought — it’s so easy for realtors and others with lots of money to put in lots of money saying this is a bad thing for renters, which is just the opposite of the truth. I think if you see a lot of ads for something you should always vote the other way. It’s only entities with an interest, with a lot of money that are trying to convince you by telling you a lot of lies that something is bad,” Kuehl says. “Prop 21 is good. It is good for renters — and it is not bad for people who own rental housing, unless they want to price down because it allows for a reasonable return. It gives you the ability to pass through emergency repairs that you have to make. It simply helps to stabilize housing and help us get a handle on this huge homelessness crisis, which has made much worse by COVID.”
LGBTQ renters, in particular, need Prop 21. Not only to avoid the risk of eviction during the COVID pandemic, but also because violent hate crimes in LA County are on the rise.
“I think LGBTQ people have suffered greatly in the pandemic because we always were more vulnerable as a group, in terms of our revenue income, our ability to thrive,” Kuehl says. “I think we should be very concerned about each other as a community and making certain that people can stay in their housing in these very difficult and dangerous times.”