Guest Commentary: Why Is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation Leading the Rent Control Movement?

Apartment for rent sign

If you are seeing ads for a rent control ballot initiative in California these days, they will say that they are sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF). Naturally, many people will wonder why an AIDS organization is in the lead on tenant issues.

“Is this their mission?” The best way to understand this is to take a look at AHF’s history.

AHF grew out of a ballot initiative called Proposition 64 in 1986. It might be hard to fathom now, but this was an initiative to quarantine people with HIV. When it was first announced, polling showed it would win overwhelmingly. However, by the end of that campaign, it lost 71 percent to 29 percent. The Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee led a large protest against the initiative that ignited widespread opposition.

AHF was founded the next year as the AIDS Hospice Foundation. Our battle cry was “fight for the living, care for the dying.” People with AIDS were routinely dying in the hallways of county hospitals. We were morally outraged by the neglect.

Life expectancy was 13 months. At that time, the most we could do was to give people a dignified death. AHF advocated for—and then created—three 25-bed residential hospices that gave patients a home in addition to end-of-life palliative care. So AHF is no stranger to housing; it is in our DNA.

In 1990, as treatment for opportunistic infections improved, AHF began opening clinics and changed its name to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Then, in 1996, the three-drug “cocktail” revolutionized treatment and took HIV from being a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness. AHF began expanding nationwide in order to bring as many people into the lifeboat of care as possible. Five years later, we were among the very first to provide free, life-saving treatment in Africa and other developing countries. Today, AHF has more than 1.9 million lives in care across 46 countries.

AHF’s international headquarters is located in Hollywood, California, an epicenter of homelessness. Every day, we witness the human tragedy before our very eyes. We also hear the stories of our patients who had no place to live, and many of our staff who had to move farther and farther out to find affordable housing. It sparked the same moral outrage that we felt about AIDS in the 1980s.

How could the government response be so inadequate? Just like the greed of drug companies that prevented poor people the world over from getting the medication they so desperately needed, corporate real estate is squeezing the lifeblood out of California.

We have channeled that outrage into action. AHF has purchased and rehabilitated 15 buildings in Los Angeles, providing 1,417 homes for the lowest-income people. And we have twice before placed rent control propositions on the ballot. We knew that, without controlling rents, more people would be strangled by rent increases.

No one asks billionaires why they venture into new realms. However, those very same billionaires say that AHF “should stay in its lane.”

We believe that housing is the number one social determinant of health. We cannot treat our patients if they are not securely housed. Furthermore, in the same way that healthcare is a human right, housing most certainly is as well. The third leg on that stool is food, which has motivated AHF to create the Food for Health program, supplying nutritious food to poor people.

We felt it important to answer the unstated question that is on people’s minds as to why we are so committed to the cause of affordable housing. It’s simple: Because housing is a necessity, and depriving people of a house is a moral outrage.

Michael Weinstein is the president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global HIV/AIDS organization.