That is not an acceptable option. We must preserve our unique identity for future generations, or risk losing the heritage and solidarity that we have built over the last 45 years. West Hollywood has always been at the forefront of the gay movement, and if we begin to lose our sense of self, that’s not just a local problem, that’s a disaster for our entire community’s future.
West Hollywood is a small city geographically; in total we’re less than 2 square miles in size. But our influence and impact is limitless. For 30 years now, “WeHo,” as it’s been affectionately called since its founding, has been a beacon of progressive values and economic innovation for not just the L.A. region but the state, country and planet as a whole.
We’re known primarily as one of the last true gay villages in the country. But slowly that aspect of our identity is beginning to fade away. Just as in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York, the crisis of rising rents has begun to eat away at the uniquely diverse community that makes us special, that makes us great.
The fact is that gay residents and the businesses they own are being priced out. Some say this trend isn’t real, that it isn’t happening, but when you look at the fact that a one-bedroom apartment at The Huxley, a new development on the east side (the less developed side of West Hollywood) now costs $2,300, it’s hard to come to that conclusion. When you look at the fact that various gay small businesses such as Block Party on Santa Monica Boulevard have had to move away or close down completely because it’s just too expensive to stay open, clearly there’s something wrong with the direction we’re going in.
Some say this change is inevitable, that it’s a natural progression in a free market for an upscale city that’s becoming more and more attractive to live in. I understand that argument and agree that gentrification, as long as it’s healthy and balanced, is not necessarily a bad thing. But this has the potential to truly change our city in a negative way, to cause the essence of who we are to eventually disappear.
There are steps we can take to solve this problem. We can create more micro units, units that people can actually afford, as they have done in New York and San Francisco. We can repeal the California Ellis Act which unfairly evicts tenants from their homes. We can pass small business rent control, something that has never been done in the U.S. but that has been done in Spain and other countries, and that I think would work quite well in West Hollywood. We can pass something like Measure R which recently passed by 2-to-1 in Malibu, which established voter referendums on major developments and keeps 70 percent of new commercial development space for small businesses. These are just a few ideas among many. One thing is for sure: this change is not inevitable.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s likely decision in favor of nationwide marriage equality in June, people will be asking what the next frontier for our cause will be. I believe that new frontier will be the issue of rent, the issue of our gay housing crisis. This issue goes beyond legal rights or politics; it strikes at the heart of our culture, our identity, our soul. We must recognize and take action on this issue before it’s too late.
James Duke Mason is a candidate for city council in West Hollywood. He is an activist and the son of Go-Go’s lead singer Belinda Carlisle and producer Morgan Mason, and the grandson of the late British actor James Mason.