There was never any question about whether the city of West Hollywood, located between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, would endorse Proposition 21. Rent control was the impetus for the city’s creation in 1984.
“We’re a rent control city,” says West Hollywood City Councilmember John Heilman, one of the city’s founding fathers and a longtime, nationally recognized gay elected official. “It has given some protection to long-term tenants and even for newer tenants. It has limited rent increases.”
Proposition 21, also known as the Rental Affordability Act, puts limits on unfair, sky-high rents increases. It’s endorsed not only by West Hollywood, but by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the California Democratic Party, and many others.
Then, like now, rent control was a frontline political issue in West Hollywood and throughout California. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan ushered in an administration that celebrated excessive privilege and abuse of power. Reagan touted author Ayn Rand, who peddled selfishness as a virtue and the supremacy of the individual over societal and governmental obligations — such as shoring up the economic safety net.
Reagan’s philosophy trickled down into communities across the United States. So by 1984, the conservative majority on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided to phase out rent control. Concerned about the impact on frightened, long-term tenants — many of whom were Depression-era seniors living in West Hollywood — the Coalition for Economic Survival put a county-wide rent control measure on the ballot. It failed.
Meanwhile, a West Hollywood group concerned about land-use and development issues joined forces with renters interested in making unincorporated West Hollywood a city. LGBTQ renters, terrified by the growing AIDS epidemic and constant LAPD harassment and brutality, joined the coalition.
“When we became a city in November of 1984, about 84 percent of our residents were renters, so there was pretty strong support for rent control. That really was the impetus for cityhood,” says Heilman.
“One of our priorities was enacting a strong rent control ordinance. We went through lots of hearings and gathered input. We had expert consultants helping us, and we ultimately developed a pretty strong rent control law.”
The law also allowed a 10 percent increase upon vacancy, says Heilman, “recognizing that landlords would have some costs associated with vacancies and want to make improvements.”
But in 1995, California state legislators, at the bidding of the real estate industry, passed the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which placed severe restrictions on local rent control policies.
Costa-Hawkins “removed the power of cities to control rents upon vacancy,” says Heilman. “So when a long-term tenant moves out, the landlord can raise the rent as high as they want. When somebody new moves in, it’s controlled under our ordinance. But that really has had a big effect on causing rent to increase.”
It also incentivized landlords to harass long-term tenants and seniors into leaving.
Proposition 21 will change that.
Prop 21, says Heilman, “restores to local government the authority to enact rent control ordinances and to design the ordinances based on the unique conditions of that particular community.”
It “is actually a measure — even if it doesn’t address everything – that sends a very clear message that state and local governments need to protect tenants,” says Heilman.
Now, like then, renters’ rights advocates do not consider “tenants” some amorphous term, some stereotype used for political expediency. Tenants are human beings with individual stories.
The LGBTQ community, for instance, is not inherently wealthy.
“Obviously, there are some who are. But there are also plenty of others who are living below the poverty line” for whom the West Hollywood rent control ordinance provides some security, says Heilman.
“It has helped a lot of people — not just seniors, but people who have HIV and their work has been interrupted or they’re no longer able to work — and people with other disabilities.”
While corporate landlords care only for their big profits, the cityhood movement showed that coalitions of the compassionate care about the people who live behind the curtains in at-risk rent controlled apartments. Just like today’s Yes on Prop 21 movement, which is supported by the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, and the National Action Network.
Driving down Harper Ave. between Fountain Ave. and Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, the image of Frances Eisenberg walking out of her front-facing rent-controlled apartment would not prompt a stare. But, like so many seniors from retired B-list actors to Jewish Russian emigres to the favorite bartender in a swank restaurant, Eisenberg’s story belies an activist history. In that Harper Ave. apartment, Eisenberg hosted, among others, members of the Los Angeles Federation of Teachers, for which she was a founding member and served for many years as editor of its newspaper.
She also hosted Black intellectual icon W.E.B. Du Bois, with whom she shared interests in ending racism, education, and Communism – the latter serving as a defining moment for each.
In the 1940s, Eisenberg was a popular substitute and journalism teacher for 16 years at Canoga Park High School in a Republican enclave that considered President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a Communist because he supported the United Nations. Among those Republicans was the Nofziger family, whose son Lyn was one of Eisenberg’s senior students. After she and her classmates rejected his proposal to write a ‘Digging the Dirt’ gossip column for the school paper, Eisenberg gave Lyn a “B” because he was otherwise a good student.
That’s when Eisenberg’s life dramatically changed. As she recalled later, Lyn Nofziger’s mother showed up on the last day of school, opened her classroom door, and said, “Are you Mrs. Eisenberg?” “Yes, come in,” Frances replied. “No, this is Lyn, my son’s report card. You gave him a B in journalism?” She then uttered an anti-Semetic remark and said she’d get revenge.
And she did. Nofziger corralled local politicians running for office who all decried the fact that Eisenberg was teaching their children about the United Nations. She wound up being transferred to Fairfax High School where she taught for seven years.
But during the Red Scare in the 1950s, she was subpoenaed five times to appear before the California UnAmerican Activities Committee, accused of being a subversive Communist. She refused to give up the names of her fellow union members and closed the door on FBI agents who frequently pushed her bell at 6:00 AM. She was fired in 1953 by the LA Board of Education and blacklisted, forbidden from ever teaching in public schools again.
But there was a silver lining: neighbors brought their kids over for private tutoring and she was a heroine to union activists and the ACLU of Southern California. When Frances Eisenberg joined CES and the West Hollywood cityhood movement, seniors knew she could be trusted.
Frances Eisenberg lived in her West Hollywood home for 30 years. She died there in July 1996. But if she was still alive, she’d no doubt join her friend John Heilman in fighting to pass Prop 21.
Top photo: West Hollywood City Councilmember John Heilman (back to camera) and CES Executive Director Larry Gross rejoice in their cityhood victory, which was led by CES. (Photo courtesy CES)
Karen Ocamb, the author of this article, is a staff writer for the Yes on Prop 21 movement.