Which California Do You Choose?

Two diverging roads at sunset with a yellow road sign indicating a fork ahead.

OP | ED – In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and the Scarecrow are faced with a fork in the yellow brick road. Luckily, they chose the correct one that led them to the Emerald City. California faces such a fork in the road. Down one road is the continued degradation of our quality of life. More people will flee the state because they can’t afford to live here which will lead to financial ruin even worse than the current budget shortfall of $78 billion. If we choose the other road of balance between the needs of the market and the needs of human beings for the basic necessities of life – including a decent place to live – then the California dream has a chance of being restored.

Currently, we are on the road to being a third world country with a minority of wealthy people living in splendor and ever-increasing numbers of people living hand to mouth. The Golden State is no longer very golden for the majority of people. California is home to 178 billionaires and the most people living in poverty as determined by the cost of living. California currently has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and more people are moving to other states than any other.

How did this land of milk and honey become such a basket case? All of our blessings have become our curse. We have allowed the greediest among us to usurp our birthright to a California for everyone. In a place with such riches – the fifth largest economy in the world and home to the largest high-tech firms in the world – we are left to play Hunger Games as to who can survive here. Can’t we do better than the survival of the fittest? Can’t we find a balance that allows the young, the old, the infirm, and the working people to have a decent life without constant anxiety about how they will pay rent and put food on the table? Do we have to be slaves to the wealthiest among us?

The rest of the country is under the illusion that California is extremely progressive, which it is on many social issues. However, when it comes to income inequality and all the dreadful things that come along with it, we are at the bottom of the barrel. We should be embarrassed that we are the homeless capital of the US and the world. We know that we are much better than that. But we are not holding our politicians accountable for the policies that have brought us to this sorry place.

When you are in a hole, stop digging. To get out of this hole, we need a political transformation. Greedy corporate landlords cannot be allowed to dictate housing policy by flooding our politicians’ campaign coffers with tens of millions of dollars. We need to make Big Real Estate dollars as toxic as tobacco money. Any politician who is taking money from the California Apartment Association and then leads the charge in depriving tenants should pay the price on election day.

Voters have a mighty weapon in California – the initiative. Initiatives have been called the fourth branch of California government. As a starting point, we can take the power into our own hands by passing the Yes on 33 initiative for rent control this November. Big Real Estate wins every time because we can’t rely on our politicians, and the voters are paying attention. November is our big chance to take that fork in the road toward the Emerald City we all want and deserve to have.

(Michael Weinstein is cofounder and president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global AIDS organization, which currently provides medical care and prevention services to 2 million individuals in 47 countries worldwide in the US, Africa, Latin America/Caribbean, the Asia/Pacific Region, and Eastern Europe.)