PD Editorial: Give voters a chance to repeal exclusionary law

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

California leads the nation on a lot of things, but racism shouldn’t be one of them. This is the only state with a law that allows voters to veto public housing projects. It’s rooted in a decades-old racist law, and it needs to go.

Voters added that notorious law to the state constitution back in the 1950s as a way for white neighborhoods to keep out Black families. Specifically, Article 34 requires governments to get voter approval before spending public money on affordable housing projects. Then, as now, it is a regrettable truth that people of color disproportionately live in affordable housing.

Cumulatively over decades, the law has contributed to the state’s dire shortage of affordable housing. Often, local governments didn’t even bother proposing subsidized affordable housing projects because they knew that voters would shoot them down.

Today, there might be less overt racism in such votes, but there’s still a stigma associated with affordable housing. Affluent people don’t like poor people moving into the neighborhood, and the constitution has a tool to keep them out. Affordable housing sounds great, as long as it’s in someone else’s neighborhood.

Lawmakers have been trying to address the housing crisis. Changes to the state’s development rules, such as a new law that does away with single-family zoning, will only go so far. Some government assistance is critical to encouraging developers to build affordable housing instead of more-profitable developments.

Lawmakers know that this is an outrageous state of affairs, but a proposal to ask voters to repeal the provision from the constitution is floundering. It passed the Senate without a single vote against, but the Assembly has yet to act.

Supporters fear Californians would vote against repeal (“New push to repeal housing law seeks funds,” March 7). Thirty years ago, voters overwhelmingly rejected a repeal measure, but times have changed. Surely the racial reckoning that has struck the United States in recent years has shifted some views and opened some minds to the harm that exclusionary laws cause.

Some of the trepidation comes down to money. Ballot measures, even ones referred by the Legislature, usually require expensive campaigns. It’s easy to raise money to legalize sports gambling; much harder when there’s no clear financial stake. Some supporters of repeal estimate they would need millions of dollars to convince voters.

We’re not so sure. This is not a complicated question. It’s easy to understand why California should undo a harmful policy rooted in racism, especially one abused to exacerbate the housing crisis. Most voters have personal experience with the high cost of housing.

If repeal does go to the ballot, newspapers around the state would write about it, and most — maybe all — would endorse it on their editorial page. The word would get out without costly advertising. There also would be no strong organized opposition. Who wants to stand publicly on the side of racism?

Once a campaign begins, some money might yet materialize, either from wealthy philanthropists who believe in supporting a just civic cause or perhaps from developers of affordable housing.

An ancient Roman proverb advised Audentes Fortuna iuvat — Fortune favors the bold. When it comes to undoing racist vestiges in the state constitution, if lawmakers show a little more boldness, they might just find Fortune’s — and voters’ — favor.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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