California lawmakers are again trying to get rid of the country’s only law that allows voters to veto public housing projects, a provision added to the state’s constitution in 1950 to keep black families out of white neighborhoods. .
Almost everyone on Capitol Hill agrees the provision should be repealed, both for its racist roots and because it makes it much more difficult to build affordable housing in a state where the median price of a single-family home is nearly of $800,000.
The effort needs funding
But the latest repeal attempt hit a snag – not because of organized opposition, but because of a lack of financial support. It’s expensive to change the California Constitution, and supporters haven’t found anyone willing to pay for it.
Although the state legislature can pass and repeal laws, it cannot change the constitution unless the voters also approve it. Putting a proposal on the ballot is useless unless it is accompanied by a statewide campaign to persuade people to vote for it. These campaigns can cost $20 million or more, as California has some of the most expensive media markets in the country.
“It’s not the type of ballot measure that automatically attracts money,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who supports repeal with fellow Democrat Sen. Ben Allen. . “The poll is not rock solid. It’s a winnable campaign. We can win. But this will require solid funding.
Support in the Legislative Assembly is not an issue, as a repeal proposal passed the state Senate 37-0 earlier this year. But public support is another matter, and carries a big risk.
In 2020, as support for racial justice causes skyrocketed following the murder of George Floyd, funders spent more than $22 million on a campaign to amend the California Constitution so that public universities can take a person’s race into account when deciding who to admit. They failed, with 57% of voters voting “no” while opponents spent just $1.7 million.
Last repeal attempt failed
Once a campaign fails, it often takes supporters years to muster enough support to try again. The last time proponents tried to repeal California’s Affordable Housing Act was nearly three decades ago, in 1993, when it failed with just 40% of votes in favor.
Supporters were prepared to take the proposal to the 2020 ballot, believing a presidential election year would boost turnout among young voters and give him a better chance of passing. But they abandoned the effort because they couldn’t get enough campaign funding, Wiener said.
Lawmakers must decide by June 30 whether to put it on the ballot this year or wait until 2024.
California’s law requiring voters to approve state-funded affordable housing projects came after a 1949 federal law banning segregation in public housing projects. In 1950, a local housing authority in Eureka – 370 kilometers north of San Francisco – applied for federal funds to build housing for low-income people.
Some residents tried to stop the project, but city leaders refused. So residents put an amendment to the constitution on the ballot saying the government must get voter approval before using public money to build affordable housing. The California Real Estate Association paid for the campaign, and it passed.
California Unique Housing Law
California is now the only state to have this law, and it only applies to public funding for affordable housing, which is disproportionately used by people of color.
“It’s racist, classist,” Wiener said. “I think it’s shocking to a lot of people that this is in our current constitution.”
The provision had a major impact on state development, as California missed out on much of the federal government’s abundant public housing spending in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Western Center policy advocate Cynthia Castillo on Law and Poverty.
“It tied our hands in exploring solutions to the affordable housing crisis and the homelessness crisis in a sense by taking public housing off the table,” Castillo said.
There are ways to circumvent the law. State lawmakers changed the definition of “low-cost housing project” to mean any development where more than 49% of the units are reserved for low-income people. Anything less than that does not require an election.
In some progressive cities, local leaders ask voters for broad authority to build a set number of affordable housing units across the city. In 2020, San Francisco voters authorized city leaders to build 10,000 affordable housing units. But that kind of voter support doesn’t exist everywhere.
A potential source of funding for the campaign to repeal the law is the California Real Estate Association, now known as the California Association of Realtors. The group was largely responsible for passing the law in 1950. Today, it strongly supports repeal, a position it has maintained for decades, according to Sanjay Wagle, the association’s chief lobbyist. .
“It would be very expensive” campaign
Wagle said the association had an obligation to help repeal the law. But he said he couldn’t afford to do it alone. Most people like to have a say in what is being built near them. He said polls suggest people change their minds once they learn about the issue – but that would require a sophisticated and expensive campaign.
“Most people think, ‘Oh yeah, I like the idea of voting on any project. It’s going to take it away from me. They don’t think about the wider implications,’ he said. “You have to overcome that by really going into the weeds, which is difficult or would be very expensive.”
Wagle said it would take multiple groups to fund a successful campaign, which he said wouldn’t be hard to come by because “there’s a lot of money on the progressive side in California.”
But it hasn’t happened yet. Wiener said he believes the funding will eventually arrive, which is why he is pushing to get him on the ballot soon.
“There are a lot of bands that want to get involved,” he said. “And I think once we give them confidence that it’s real, they can do it.”