Several offices of the world's largest HIV services provider are located in Hollywood, the legendary Los Angeles neighborhood that's either in the middle of a rebirth or the throes of self-destruction, depending on who you ask. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation and its powerful leader, Michael Weinstein, are very much of the latter opinion.
The organization is waging a lobbying war against the latest proposed development for Hollywood: a pair of 28-story towers adjacent to its own high-rise corporate office, on a site where a parking lot now sits. Not only do Weinstein and AHF oppose the towers — known as the Palladium Residences — because of traffic, gentrification, and affordable housing concerns, they are actively campaigning against it, spending an unknown amount on a ballot initiative that would restrict zoning exemptions and make it difficult for city planners to greenlight large, dense structures.
Developers and politicians are paying attention, especially since Weinstein and AHF have found success before at the ballot box. The organization's controversial push for mandatory condom use on Los Angeles County porn sets passed overwhelmingly four years ago; it's spearheading a similar statewide initiative for the November ballot.
While some local leaders and adult film industry officials denounced AHF's condom regulation, saying it would drive away local production and tax revenue, no one questioned why the group was taking such a stance. But the commitment to fighting development in Hollywood and using AHF funds to do it has some scratching their heads.
Seeking to kill the Palladium Residences and similar projects by limiting density exemptions via the ballot initiative "is not understandable," says Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture/urban design and urban planning at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I'd go further than that; it's actually a misuse of their funds."
In a frank and sometimes tense conversation with The Advocate, Weinstein defended his skyscraper war, saying it made sense for AHF to fight for its community.
"Our international headquarters are located in Hollywood and have been since 1989," Weinstein says, describing the recent increase in development and congestion in the once-seedy district. "A large number of us live in the area, own homes in the area."
Pro-growth advocates say more housing, especially in a transit-rich neighborhood like Hollywood — served by a subway line and several bus routes — is just what L.A. needs. The city is in the midst of a severe housing crisis, with Angelenos forking over more of their income to rent than any other people in the nation.
Weinstein argues that upscale projects like the Palladium towers are not the solution, since the apartments will command exorbitant rents that working-class people cannot afford.
"We need $800 apartments, not $3,800 apartments," Weinstein says. "As they build more luxury units, other units around them go up [in value] radically. You can't call people like me NIMBYs for being against luxury housing. If we were against a school, a hospital, a homeless shelter, or an affordable housing project, you can call us NIMBYs all day long."
Still, Weinstein argues that projects like the Palladium Residences belong in places other than where AHF calls home.
"Why isn't there development in South L.A.?" he asks rhetorically. "Why isn't there development in Boyle Heights? Why concentrate all this development in Hollywood? You have a [transit line] in the Valley and a [transit line] in South L.A."
Regarding Weinstein's traffic concerns, Cuff says building apartments near subway lines actually helps solve that problem. But Weinstein says, "People who pay $3,800 for an apartment are not the ones who ride the subway."
AHF is so opposed to the upzoning of the district, it's footing the bill for five billboards — a medium it's employed frequently in public information campaigns. And the nonprofit recently hired the former managing editor of L.A. Weekly to head the ballot effort. AHF says it has not yet determined how much money will be spent on the ballot initiative, but Weinstein says AHF's staff of about 1,000 supports the Hollywood housing battle and the money spent on it. "If you're asking me if there's a revolt in the ranks of AHF over this, the answer is no."
Cynthia Davis, the chair of AHF's board of directors, backs Weinstein up.
"Michael brought this to the board a couple months ago and presented his perspective on why he should take on this initiative," she says. "There was general consensus. We agreed with what he shared with us."
Weinstein argues that the money spent on his ballot initiative will be "minimal" and notes that the organization devotes 96 cents of every dollar it receives to HIV care.
"We have a budget in excess of a $1 billion," Weinstein says. "We're not diverting money from patient care, but we feel that we have a responsibility to the community in which we're headquartered."
Cuff is of the mind that whatever the resources being put into the fight, they'd be better spent working on adding affordable housing to the project instead of killing it, and the developer might be amenable, given AHF's influence.
"They're putting a lot of energy into stopping this project," says Cuff. "If they put that same energy into getting some of this project to be affordable, I would understand [their motivation]. But to just stop it — they couldn't possibly be concerned about affordable housing."
Differing opinions on the nature of gentrification and the future of cities have played out since before Rome fell. Weinstein, though, believes enough locals are on his side to put his ballot initiative over the top — a poll commissioned by his new Coalition to Preserve LA found that 72 percent of Los Angeles residents surveyed had supported the initiative.
But the question remains, Is it appropriate for AHF to spend money on something only tangentially related to its mission of curbing HIV infections and providing services to those with the disease? The Los Angeles LGBT Center, which also offers numerous resources for HIV-positive people, is not getting directly involved in development battles. The groups are located about a half mile away from each other.
"Many of the Center’s facilities are based in Hollywood, where there is a tremendous housing crunch," LGBT Center CEO Lorri Jean said in a statement. "We haven’t taken a position on this project, but we welcome much-needed affordable housing units here because their proximity to us and to public transportation would make it even easier for low-income people to access our services."
Though he's aware there are prominent leaders who disagree with his initiative, including the area's councilman and the city's mayor, he's faced fierce opposition before and survived. Weinstein dismisses any criticism of AHF's crusade found in the comment boards of local media stories as coming from "greedy developers."
Weinstein's controversial campaign against use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, known as PrEP, the daily dosage of a drug that reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90 percent when taken consistently, led to numerous HIV leaders loudly putting him on blast. But Weinstein and the organization he's run for over a quarter-century were undeterred. And this time, with skyscrapers instead of pills as the point of contention, little has changed.