Thu, May

Is California Turning into a Dust Bowl?


GUEST COMMENTARY - A young cousin of mine recently moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her boyfriend were lured by a $10,000 grant each of them got as remote workers during COVID. Plus, the average cost of a home in Tulsa is $195,000 which made it affordable for her.

My bicoastal family was confused why anyone would move to Oklahoma. Yet, in just the two years between April 2020 and July 2022, 700,000 Californians decamped to places east, west, north, and south. The irony of the film running in reverse should not escape us. Hordes abandoned the grinding poverty of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the 1930s for the better life in California. Today, for so many, the life in Tulsa is so much easier than in Los Angeles.

So much of what made California golden in tarnished. Life here now is cruelly expensive and lacking the optimism that has defined California throughout history. The human tragedy of homelessness is everywhere. The hidden scourge of rent poverty is even more pervasive. Rather than being the ultimate “can do” place, we now are gripped by a gnawing pessimism. Pursing your dreams has been replaced by keeping your nose above water.

Living in Oklahoma was unthinkable to my bicoastal family who migrated to California from New York over the last two generations. We covet living in the liberal bubble of the Left Coast. We only can live in a place with people who think like us. We fully subscribe to the California Dream of outdoor living, embracing diversity, and celebrating freedom. Yet one of our very own picked up stakes and doesn't seem to be looking back.

I love Los Angeles. So much of who and what I am and what I have accomplished came from this land of milk and honey. But that’s not the Los Angeles that so attracted me when I came here in 1972. At the time, LA was a great place to be poor. I lived on $300 a month. My tiny furnished apartment at the President Wilson on Wilshire and Union cost me $100 a month, including utilities. It had a Murphy bed and a little breakfast nook. It was a whole lot better and cheaper than any apartment I could have gotten in New York City.

More than anything, what attracted me to LA was the freedom I felt here. Self-discovery beyond the stereotype of your ethnicity or sexuality was not just possible, it was celebrated. The pecking order was a lot less tradition-bound than back east. However, how can you feel free now when the average apartment costs more than you can earn working a fulltime minimum wage job?

My first entry level job in LA was at Occidental Insurance. I made $550 a month. I had a poor but comfortable life. That is impossible today which makes me wonder how it got this way. How did housing become a commodity controlled by corporations? What happened to the mom-and-pop landlords?

As liberal as California may be, it is ruled by corporate interests who are not satisfied unless they can wring every last penny out of their real estate investments. Multinational corporations like Blackstone have swooped in and now dominate California politically and economically. Big money shouts and our political leaders cower. We previously enjoyed a charmed life which allowed us to be politically apathetic, but those days are over. The California Dream will die if we aren't willing to fight for it.

The place to start is to make affordable housing a human right. We need to make our political leaders accountable to us rather than mega corporations. Leaders such as Gavin Newsom, who has attached himself to Big Real Estate, needs to be held responsible for the housing crisis he enabled as the mayor of San Francisco and the governor of California.

California still is a land of freedom. Hopefully, it can be restored as a land of opportunity for everyone - not just the super-rich.


(Michael Weinstein is the co-founder and president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a global HIV/AIDS medical-care nonprofit based in Los Angeles.)

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