Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The state’s lawmakers are getting serious about removing the most serious roadblock to building new affordable housing.
There’s no better example of the tyranny of the ballot measure than Article 34.
An amendment to the California state constitution passed by public referendum in 1950, Article 34 states that: “No low rent housing project shall hereafter be developed, constructed, or acquired in any manner by any state public body until, a majority of the qualified electors of the city, town or county … approve such project by voting in favor thereof at an election to be held for that purpose, or at any general or special election.”
It’s California’s original housing sin, a binding not-in-my-backyard clause that has forced municipalities to adopt creative workarounds to build low-income housing. That it was enacted before the Fair Housing Act or even Brown v. Board of Education raises questions about the historical purpose of the rule. But today, it’s a powerful weapon for communities that want to keep low-income families out—a legal path to de facto segregation along race and class lines. When it comes to housing, California’s progressive reputation doesn’t apply.
California may get a chance to turn it around, however, during the next election cycle. State Senator Ben Allen is proposing to add a referendum to the 2020 ballot that would repeal the low-income housing amendment from the state constitution. That’s just one plank in the sweeping pro-growth agenda taking shape in California, where leaders are pledging to uproot the status quo. The key may be tackling some of the thorny process issues that are too often forgotten after elections.
Article 34 is a good example of a problem that’s easier to paper over than fix. Compliance with Article 34 can add between $10,000 and $80,000 to the cost of low-income housing, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Repealing Article 34 would lift a roadblock to affordable housing construction all over the state. But building a critical coalition to change the state constitution is painstaking, expensive, unsexy work. Politicians prefer giant novelty ribbons over brooms and hefty bags. But the state senator from Santa Monica has an ally in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who issued a statement in support of repealing Article 34. They sound like leaders who want to put in the work.
Land, labor, and lumber are the traditional price pillars for new construction. NIMBY measures add a fourth L: legal. Several legislative proposals popping up in California would tackle rising housing costs by targeting some of the structural obstacles to development. Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry introduced a constitutional amendment this week that would make it easier for local governments to fund new housing, for example. This effort would lower the threshold for voters to approve local bond or tax measures from two-thirds to a 55 percent majority.
That would be huge. An amendment that lowers the barriers for local governments to fund affordable housing proposals themselves addresses a problem at root level. It’s harder work, though, to even out the shortcomings in the constitution than to pass a bill offering funding to a constituency or a cause. There’s less glory in reform than in spending.
Most of the bills on affordable housing underway in California’s new legislative issue take the direct approach. One bill would add $500 million to the state’s budget for low-income housing tax credits. Another bill would add funds to the state’s Multi-Family Housing Program. A couple of bills would create more precise definitions and requirements for tracking homelessness. Louis Mirante, a board member for a yes-in-my-back-yard organization called House Sacramento, describes the state agenda as “literally the YIMBY-est year in the Legislature.”
While laws that increase funding or enhance efficiency are always welcome ways to add to California’s housing supply, bringing down costs is critical. Building in San Francisco costs more than $330 per square foot, the second highest level in the world. “Every dollar saved translates into a subsidy for additional units,” reads a report from SPUR on the growing costs of development in California. Lengthy approvals processes—often spanning years—are one of the primary cost drivers in Golden State development. And of the four Ls, legal delays are entirely under the control of lawmakers.
In a way, California’s push for structural solutions to California’s affordable housing crisis mirrors the national Democratic Party’s turn toward process issues to safeguard the nation’s democracy. With Democrats ascendant in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is pledging to make an anti-corruption bill her first priority upon taking the majority in January, even labeling it H.R. 1. While it has little to no hope of passing the Senate or winning President Donald Trump’s signature, it shows a recognition among leaders that they cannot ignore longstanding abuses, loopholes, and norms highlighted by unscrupulous politicians. Process may finally be a concern that commands more than lip service.
Certain structural issues—like the permanent advantage that Republicans enjoy in the U.S. Senate or the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College—are beyond the reach of reformers. Similarly, rule-by-ballot-measure in California doesn’t seem to be an item on anyone’s agenda. It should be: For every newspaper editorial lamenting the deeply regressive effects of Prop 13, California’s foundational limit on property taxes, there’s a Prop 5 in the works that would more deeply entrench inequality. Even ballot measures that seek to undo the damage wreaked by direct democracy underscore the meta-crisis in California governance.
This week, California State Senator Scott Wiener and allies from across the state announced the More Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, and Stability Act. It’s the sequel to S.B. 827, an incentive package to generate new housing near transit that failed in committee earlier this year. Senator Wiener has linked a national Democratic push for a “Green New Deal” to zoning reform, saying that a national law without local changes that encourage denser-climate-friendlier housing to be built near transit represents an “incomplete climate agenda.” Leaders in California are working to remove other indirect restrictions that make affordable housing impossible.
Not all leaders, naturally. This week, Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes introduced H.R. 4, which would designate June 2 to 8 as “Proposition 13 and Homeowners’ Rights Protection Week.” Tim Redmond, blogger and former editor of the Bay Guardian, wrote this week that supporters of the More HOMES Act seek to “get rid of single-family zoning in San Francisco”—suggesting that Scott Wiener wields the authority to force homeowners to sell their homes. Defenders of the status quo are squaring off to protect the realm from reforms that would make more affordable housing possible. Inequity won’t go down in California without a fight.