Michael Weinstein is kind of like a reality TV star some audiences love but others just love to hate. The brusque president and founder of the Los Angeles-headquartered AIDS Healthcare Foundation has dished out so much chum for critics, scorners often whip themselves into a Sharknado-style frenzy at the mere mention of his name. Just ask Steven Maviglio, spokesperson for Californians for Responsible Housing, who tried to sink Proposition 21 by tying Weinstein like an anchor to the rent control initiative in last year’s general election.
Ultimately, Prop 21—a Weinstein-led voter initiative that tried to address California’s housing affordability crisis through community-determined rent control—was defeated like Prop 10 before it, this time with the help corporate billionaires who overwhelmed voters with an $85 million opposition campaign that included TV ads featuring Governor Gavin Newsom. AHF, the lead contributor to the Yes on 21 campaign, contributed over $40 million.
It was only later that Housing Is a Human Right, AHF’s housing advocacy division, used state tax filings to tie Newsom’s scandalous November 6 French Laundry birthday party appearance for lobbyist friend Jason Kinney to his support for the No on Prop 21 campaign.
“With the California Democratic Party solidly endorsing Prop 21, the No on Prop 21 campaign needed to counter with a prominent Democrat. Newsom, a close friend of Axiom Advisors partner Jason Kinney, whose firm worked with No on Prop 21 consultant Nielsen Merksamer, came to the rescue,” AHF reported in a November press release. “By November, with Newsom’s active help, Prop 21 lost at the polls—and struggling tenants wouldn’t get the expansion of rent control that they needed and hoped for” during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Splitting the Democratic Party that way and giving credibility to the other side’s argument—and doing it by his face and name appearing with just outright lies [in No on Prop 21 campaign ads], basically confusing people into believing that the ‘No’ side was the renters’ side—was just absolutely deplorable. And it won’t be forgotten,” Weinstein tells Los Angeles. “I am extremely disappointed in his leadership and I think that his actions have left him vulnerable.”
Weinstein says he’s “not necessarily in favor of a recall” just months before a gubernatorial election. However, he does think Newsom’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been “a mess.” But “most disappointing is that he has surrounded himself with lobbyists and high rollers. I can’t think of it getting much swampier than what he’s done.”
It might seem pragmatic for a nonprofit chief to exercise more caution when dishing out criticism, but Weinstein says he isn’t worried about backlash.
“Most people won’t say the kinds of things that I say because they worry about having to do business with the state—because the system does punish people who criticize,” Weinstein says. “My whole career is based on biting the hand that feeds me. So, I’m OK with that.”
Weinstein, 68, wears irony like a comfortable old coat. As an AIDS activist, Weinstein has organized scores of successful lawsuits and grassroots protests against Big Pharma profiteering to bring down drug prices. And yet the “lion’s share” of his $2 billion organization’s funding comes from its pharmacies (in addition to its clinics, thrift stores, grants, and partnerships). “The irony is—as hard as we fought to bring drug prices down, we are the beneficiaries of the high prices,” Weinstein says.
He’s optimistic about working with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime AHF supporter and the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee, to make some progress in bringing drug prices down. AHF already has laid the foundation through lawsuits against Gilead Sciences, which made “untold billions” off of the HIV treatment tenofovir.
Over the years, AHF has itself been the target of lawsuits. In 2015, a trio of whistleblowers filed suit in Florida, claiming the foundation had violated the Anti-Kickback Statute by giving employees bonuses for referring HIV-positive patients to its own healthcare services. In 2018, a judge decided no violation had taken place. After they lost, the former employees who’d filed the kickback case went to the U.S. Justice Department and the Florida state government alleging Medicare fraud. Both the DOJ and Florida declined to pursue the case.
In another 2018 Florida lawsuit, a judge ruled in AHF’s favor in a Medicaid contract case that AHF said threatened to disrupt care for nearly 2,000 HIV patients.
In the court of public opinion, Weinstein is still slammed for calling the HIV prevention drug PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) a “party drug,” which people thought unfairly stigmatized the treatment. In fact, AHF dispenses PrEP after a medical checkup to ensure the client should take it and is advised about side effects and accompanying condom use, per medical protocol.
“It’s a mischaracterization to say that we were opposed to PrEP,” Weinstein told the Los Angeles Blade in 2019. “We said that we did not believe it would be a successful public health strategy” as the primary focus of HIV prevention. “Years and billions of dollars later, the new infection rate has not plummeted, STD rates have gone up, condoms are anathema, and people of color are not accessing the drug. “It’s very difficult to get people to take a drug for a disease they don’t have,” Weinstein said. “It’s hard enough to get people to take a drug for disease they do have.”
Weinstein lives and breathes the big picture. His resolve comes from an early passion as a Jewish Brooklyn teen to serve those left out and left behind. AHF was founded as a hospice provider, precipitated by the moral outrage of seeing “a whole population of people who were being treated as throwaways,” many of whom were people of color uncared for in the hallways of an L.A. County hospital during the AIDS crisis. “Someone had to be a voice for those people in that situation,” says Weinstein.
Today, in the midst of a housing crisis fueled by L.A.’s dramatic income inequality, Weinstein is refocused on the intersection between housing and healthcare. “Homelessness in a wealthy city like Los Angeles is an outrage. Somebody has to voice that outrage and we have the capability to do it. And we also have the capability to design solutions. So, I feel like we have a moral obligation to do that,” Weinstein tells Los Angeles. “The [eviction] moratorium is great in terms of not having people be put out on the streets. But the fact that people are racking up debt is also a problem.”
One of AHF’s solutions is developing a cost-effective model of buying motels and hotels around L.A. through its Healthy Housing Foundation and converting them into low-income and homeless housing. “We currently operate 2,900 units,” Weinstein says, adding that HHF is in escrow on three motel properties and has plans to construct a new 240-unit modular building.
On January 20, Weinstein rolled out a new Comprehensive Housing Platform anchored by AHF’s multi-pronged approach to housing called the “3 Ps”: protect, preserve, and produce. As he explains it, “‘Prevent’ involves addressing gentrification and homelessness by keeping rent under control and discouraging evictions. ‘Preserve’ entails supporting sustainable land-use policies that maintain neighborhood integrity. ‘Produce’ involves creating affordable housing through the adaptive reuse of motels and other existing buildings and utilizing cost-effective new construction.”
“We don’t do anything half-ass,” he says. “When we say we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it. And then we’re going to do it big.”
But Weinstein is reassessing AHF’s inclination to use California’s initiative process after the expensive failure of Props 10 and 21. He expected voters to turn out en masse to support renters and small homeowners during the historic healthcare pandemic and homeless crisis. Weinstein concluded that he misread the voters.
“We thought that in this environment of great need, people would to be willing to take a chance on something to help more people. But it seemed like what happened was that it made people more conservative,” he says, resulting in a 40 percent to 60 percent loss for Prop 21. “Beyond that—[the opposition] spent nearly $100,000,000. I have to surmise that the landlords would spend whatever they thought it took.”
But as it turned out, 2020 “wasn’t a good year” for other progressive initiatives either and therefore, “we’re not viewed as losers,” Weinstein contends. With just over 40 percent of the vote in both rent control initiative campaigns, AHF remains “the primary player” in securing rent-relief packages. But how to do that is now in question.
Meanwhile, Weinstein wants to continue expanding AHF, essentially transforming the global nonprofit into a public service organization that focuses on “the basics of life,” including food insecurity.
AHF is “looking at the big picture and the long view,” Weinstein says. “We’re going to get through COVID. The experience of AIDS—definitely through the eyes of people who experienced the worst of it—has a value. Who knows how much worse COVID will get? But we were at the epicenter already and if we can survive that, we can survive this.”