“Don’t let the zombies eat your brain.” Prop 21 opponents spend nearly $100M to campaign against rent measure

Three real estate-related initiatives on statewide ballot generated over $300M in total spending from groups for and against

Michael Schall of Essex Property Trust and Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Michael Schall of Essex Property Trust and Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (Credit: Jerod Harris/Getty Images)

“Don’t let the zombies eat your brain!” screamed one recent ad denouncing Proposition 21.

“Renter alert!” warned another, filling the screen with police sirens.

Opponents of Prop 21, the statewide ballot question that would let cities and counties enact residential rent control, have been sounding the alarm to help defeat the measure.

And thanks to a furious rush of final donations from the real estate industry, opponents spent a total of $95.7 million to try and convince Californians to vote against the measure, according to data from the California Secretary of State. The final month saw an avalanche of contributions, totaling about $60 million.

The spending spree highlights the industry’s intense efforts waged on all three statewide real estate-related ballot questions — the others are Prop 15, which the industry also opposes and Prop 19, which it supports — in today’s election. Proponents and opponents of the three propositions spent over $300 million combined toward their campaigns.

Prop 21 supporters, meanwhile, have spent $40.2 million, according to the Secretary of State. Over 95 percent of that money has come from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Los Angeles nonprofit that gathered the signatures to make sure the question was on the ballot.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation pushed a similar rent control ballot measure in 2018, which was defeated. That was the reason for the “Back from the dead” zombie ad that opponents ran. AIDS Healtcare Foundationon said it feels there is more statewide voter urgency today around affordable housing issues than there was two years ago.

The enormous amount of money spent to defeat the measure shows the “justifiable fear or concern that the race is much closer than opponents of Prop 21 would like,” said Ged Kensella, an AIDS Healthcare Foundation spokesperson.

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Among those that spent big against Prop 21 were three large multifamily property owners.

Essex Property Trust gave a total of $16.3 million, including $5 million last week. One of the largest multifamily property owners in the country, it is headquartered in San Mateo.

Virginia-headquartered Equity Residential spent $12.9 million to oppose Prop 21 and New York City-based Avalonbay Communities forked over $10.3 million.

There was also significant late-inning spending against Prop 15, a plan to generate tax revenue by reassessing commercial property values annually instead of when the parcel changes ownership. The money would go to county education offices.

The state’s Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, and Restaurant Association have spent millions opposing the measure in the last two weeks. Those efforts have totaled $74.2 million in spending.

Supporters, however, have been nearly as generous. They have spent $67.8 million, with the largest amount coming from the California Teachers’ Association, which gave $20.3 million. A foundation run by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, also contributed $14.3 million to help pass Prop 15. Other supporters included the Service Employees International Union.

Prop 19 grabs the award for the quirkiest spending pattern of the 2020 election cycle. The initiative would let any homeowner 55 years old or above move to a new residence but pay property taxes based on the old home’s assessed value.

Like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation on Prop 21, the California Association of Realtors is the predominant financial backer of Prop 19. The agent lobby group has spent over 95 percent of the $47 million to help get the measure approved by voters.

Only $45,000 has been spent to oppose Prop 19; that has come from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.