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Graffitied rent control message on Lake Mead’s vertical speed boat was necessary

Sean Tyler
Sean Tyler

It was spring 2022, severe drought was sapping America’s largest reservoir dry and people were starting to worry. In a video posted on YouTube, a team of local fishermen drove around Lake Mead in a bass boat recording the locations on all the sunken watercraft recently unveiled by the receding waters. As they whimpered over the loss of their favorite fishing spots, the bass boat nearly struck a strange object jutting out of the water. It looked like an iceberg, but turned out to be the withered bow of a long-ago sunken speed boat. 

Meanwhile, 20 miles away in Las Vegas, another crisis was unfolding. Gwyn Jones, a gentle-hearted, 50-something librarian and grandmother, saw her rent surge from $1,700 to $2,500, forcing her to downgrade from house to apartment and take a second job, despite her bad knees.

By summer, citywide rent had increased by an average of nearly 30 percent since 2020, all while the water kept dropping. Eventually, the sunken speed boat fully emerged with its bow upright and stern planted firmly into the rapidly hardening mud. The drying lake was making national headlines at that point — but the headlines generally pertained to the human remains uncovered by the drought, skeletons likely stewing in the lake since the mafia’s heyday in the ’60s and ’70s.

The vertical speed boat had yet to make the news, but it was only a matter of time. It was like a giant gauge indicating just how quickly the water was disappearing, and it was too ominous to ignore.

I had to act fast. If I could reach the speed boat before the media did, I’d have a chance to leave my mark for the world to see. And I knew exactly what I wanted to spray-paint across the hull: “Why No Rent Control?”

The reasons for the rent hikes were vague: a cumulation of pandemic-related inflation, mass migration and supply and demand — or landlords just using inflation/demand as an excuse to hike rates. Whatever the case, because the city had no rent control ordinance, thousands of renters were devastated, downgraded, forced into second jobs or simply left homeless.

So, “Why No Rent Control?” That was the plan. Raise awareness of the suffering renters by spray-painting the vertical speed boat, which raised awareness of a rapidly shrinking Lake Mead, the region's main drinking water supply. It was a ballsy mission and chances of being arrested for vandalism were about 50-50 … but it was the right thing to do. Poor Ms. Gwyn needed avenging, plus my own monthly rent had gone up by $300, depressing me into a second job, and stealing time with my kids.

Battling the Elements

I purchased a can of nontoxic spray paint, then drove to Lake Mead with my 6-year-old son, Rocky. Merely locating the speed boat was a challenge as Lake Mead contains roughly 759 miles of rugged shoreline surrounded by the sunbaked Mojave Desert. But we brought along a powerful set of binoculars and the fishermen from the YouTube video had mentioned something about the Government Wash section of the lake, which narrowed our search area.

The day was a hot one, and sweat was pouring from my skin as we hiked from the Government Wash campground down to the waterline. The air smelled like rotten sewage and the withering lake gave off a toxic green hue. We passed by several people who appeared to be living out of cars or rundown recreational vehicles, while trudging over trash, climbing down cliffs turned gray from the fleeting “bathtub ring” and bearing witness to a graveyard of decaying watercraft.

Nevertheless, our spirit of adventure was running high, and Rocky marched along with a bright-eyed twinkle, very much intrigued with his surroundings. He turned his gaze on two men sleeping inside a half-broken canoe and said, “Dad? Are these people homeless? Can we help them?”

I nodded proudly. “That’s why we’re here, son. To help people stay in their homes.”

We paused at the top edge of a cliff and used the binoculars to scan the shoreline. On the second pass, we found it in the midst of a dry cove, an abandoned speed boat pointing skyward like a monument to the sun. 

We ascended the cliff with little trouble, but the exposed lakebed was cracked by the sun and they were large enough for a child to fall through, forcing me to carry Rocky in my arms.

Son, Stay Back!

The earth was wet and muddy directly underneath the speed boat and it felt like stepping in quicksand. From the very moment I raised the spray paint, the graffiti job became a mad race against sinking into the sludgy bowels of the lake with no witnesses save for a curiously observing 6-year-old boy.

Of course, my son couldn’t fully grasp the reason for the spray paint. Nor did he understand the concept of renting a place to live or why the amount due went from $1,300 to $1,600 overnight. I tried to explain things as I sprayed … but suddenly I was up to my knees in mud and falling dangerously fast.

The “Why No Rent Control” part was complete, but the mud forced a hasty retreat before the question mark was added. I tossed the spray paint in desperation and crawled back to dry land, then turned to admire my handiwork with my son. The graffiti looked rushed and crooked, but the message was clear. Now all that was left to do was to go home and watch the news.

Nobody Really Cared

Over the next several months, the speed boat featuring my slogan became the caption photo for dozens of articles in media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and New York Post. Local television news showcased the speed boat almost daily, calling it “the monolith of Lake Mead.”

It became a symbol of the troubling times, but all the focus was on the drought crisis. Not once, in any of these articles or newscasts, was there any mention of “Why No Rent Control?” Nothing about Las Vegas’ other unnatural disaster. Nothing to vindicate poor Ms. Gwyn and all the rent-burdened families struggling to stay housed. The speed boat was a tomb for a failed lake and nothing more.

It was ludicrous, a testament to the evilness of short-sighted capitalism or an exposé on a proletariat without revolutionary ambition, distracted by social media. Or maybe it just wasn’t a big deal to anyone but me, and I was a fool for thinking that spray painting an abandoned speed boat could affect any real change. Whatever it was, in the end I accomplished nothing.

Senate Bill 426

For two years the cries of the renters of Las Vegas, or those generally priced out of the American Dream of owning a home, have fallen on deaf ears. It was the rent-strapped cooks and food servers of the Culinary Union that finally answered the call to justice — a force powerful enough to persuade Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) into proposing SB426 to cap rent increases. In April 2023, SB426 passed through the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor, but died after being heard by the Senate Finance Committee.

Final thoughts

An unusually heavy barrage of winter storms washed the graffiti away and by spring the “monolith of Lake Mead” halfway returned to the water. Heavy snowpack in the Rocky Mountains has partially supplemented water levels, but Lake Mead remains the epitome of inadequate management of freshwater resources in America.

A year has passed since the spray paint fiasco, but I often find myself brooding about the speed boat and all the lost souls at Lake Mead, especially whenever I drink from the faucet. I wonder what a world with rent control might look like, one where hardworking renters aren’t cash cows for landlords. But all I can picture is a world without rent control, which looks something like a dry lakebed full of hopeless drifters and sunken boats.

I’ve considered plotting some kind of desperado scheme to get Gov. Joe Lombardo’s attention. But no spray paint this time. It’s sloppy and amateurish, and unless you’re graffitiing a salvageable boat wreck not technically protected under the federal Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979, it might be illegal.

On Aug. 5, in the company of my now 7-year-old son, I returned to Lake Mead in search of the vertical speed boat. Astoundingly, I discovered the half-submerged speed boat marred in new spray paint. The message was clear and simple, “Yo Lombardo, Vote Yes For Rent Control.” I deny any involvement in the current graffiti job. 

Sean Tyler is a novelist, self-proclaimed gonzo journalist, truth seeker, U.S. Coast Guard veteran, and father of two. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Youngstown State University in Ohio and currently lives in a fortified compound in Las Vegas.


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