California voters to decide on repeal of anti-public housing measure in 2024

Nearly 75 years after the state constitution was amended to make public housing more difficult to build, California voters have the option to overturn the provision in the 2024 ballot.

The measure asks voters to eliminate Section 34 of the California Constitution, which requires voter approval before building public housing in a community. Article 34, passed in 1950, impeded the construction of low-income housing in California for decades and continues to add to the cost and uncertainty of building affordable housing today.

The real estate industry sponsored the 1950 campaign, which appealed to racist fears of neighborhood integration and contained heated rhetoric about the need to fight socialism.

Those behind the repeal of Article 34 argue that it is a racist relic that needs to be repealed, especially during an affordable housing crisis. While other states have enacted and repealed laws that required a public vote before building low-income housing, only California’s constitution currently requires voter approval for public housing.

“It’s a blot on the Constitution,” said Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), who drafted the bill to get the repeal presented to voters. “It was launched at a very different time, with very different attitudes. It has become a barrier.”

Lawmakers gave Allen’s measure final approval Wednesday night before adjourning it for the year early Thursday.

Article 34 arose out of a public housing dispute in the northern coastal city of Eureka, where the state Supreme Court ruled in 1950 that residents upset about a proposed state-funded public housing development could not use a referendum to stop the project.

In response, California Real Estate Assn., the forerunner of today’s California Assn. of Realtors, proposed a ballot initiative to amend the constitution to require a public vote before such homes could be built. The campaign argued that because public housing generates tax liabilities, voters should have a say. Efforts also drew heavily on anti-communist and segregationist messages.

Newspaper ads paid for by the real estate agents accused “minority interest groups” of pushing public housing. At the time, the real estate agent’s code of ethics included a provision that prohibited agents from incorporating neighborhoods on the basis of “race or nationality” if doing so would be “clearly detrimental to property values.”

The initiative was a narrow pass and was a precursor to one of the most defining events in LA history. In 1952, LA voters rejected plans for large-scale public housing projects planned primarily in Mexican-American neighborhoods known as Chavez Ravine.

Many residents had already been evicted from the area when the housing plans were abandoned, and the city eventually gave the Dodgers land for a stadium to lure the Brooklyn baseball team.

Article 34 thwarted the development of public housing in Los Angeles and across the state, with federal housing officials blaming the provision for the lack of affordable housing in the late 1960s.

Following the rejection of a public housing proposal in San Jose around the same time, a court challenged Article 34, saying it violated the US Constitution’s equal protections clause by denying poor people access to housing.

The US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the provision 1971 because it did not single out any racial group. Historians have called the ruling significant in reaffirming state and local policies across the country that discriminate against people living in poverty.

In recent decades, the impact of Article 34 on low-income housing has diminished. Affordable housing projects are now funded primarily through federal and state tax credits, and such efforts do not automatically trigger a public vote. Similarly, courts have ruled that cities can comply with Article 34 rules by holding elections to approve a total number of public housing units to be built in the coming years, rather than going to voters for each individual project .

Still, it remains costly and time-consuming for affordable housing developers to structure their deals to avoid an Article 34 vote, and local governments still have to put proposals to the vote, as San Francisco did in 2020.

The push to repeal Article 34 is hardly a guaranteed success. The 2024 ballot measure will be the fourth time lawmakers have asked voters to scrap or weaken the provision, with the most recent attempt being made in 1993. All previous efforts have failed by a wide margin.

Analysts have said supporters of the repeal will find it difficult to overcome voter support for the local decision-making the provision offers and anti-low-income housing sentiment.

Allen first tried to get voters to repeal Article 34 in 2019, but said the delay wasn’t due to his colleagues in the legislature; Allen’s latest proposal passed both chambers of the legislature without anyone voting against it. Instead, he and the measure’s supporters have been wary of putting a repeal on the ballot without providing sufficient financial backing for a robust campaign, given the history of failure. Initial polls conducted by supporters, Allen said, indicated that such an effort will be essential in winning over voters.

One reason Allen decided to time the repeal well ahead of the 2024 vote — supporters are undecided whether to aim for the June primary or November’s general election — was to ramp up a campaign.

“If you have the resources and time to educate people, they understand and want to support our work,” Allen said.

The senator declined to list the groups committed to funding the campaign but expected a broad coalition.

One organization expecting participation is the California Assn. from real estate agents. Sanjay Wagle, the organization’s senior vice president of government affairs, said brokers recognize their role in the creation of Article 34 and are eager to help get it repealed. The group also supported the 1993 voting measure to weaken the provision.

But Wagle said his group and other supporters of the repeal need to better understand what is necessary for passage before committing to a specific amount.

“Is this a $10 million, $5 million, or $50 million campaign?” Wagle said. “Where are we at this point, in this political climate? It’s really difficult to give you a number in terms of our participation in the campaign because we need to know what that total will be.” California voters to decide on repeal of anti-public housing measure in 2024

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