California lawmakers abandon attempt to repeal law requiring voter approval for some public housing

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers on Monday abandoned their attempt to repeal the nation's only law requiring voter approval for publicly funded affordable housing projects, a provision added to the state Constitution more than half a century ago that aimed to keep people of color out of white neighborhoods.

Most everyone in the state Capitol agrees the law needs to go, and no organized opposition has emerged to repealing it. But the measure is one of more than a dozen that have qualified for the November election, and supporters worry about raising the millions of dollars it will take to campaign for its passage.

That's one reason why lawmakers voted to withdraw the measure on Monday just three days before the secretary of state must certify the ballot for the November election.

“While (the repeal) was one of many efforts to help address the housing crisis, the November ballot will be very crowded and reaching voters will be difficult and expensive,” said Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen, who authored the bill to remove the measure from the ballot.

California has a robust initiative process that lets the public bypass the state Legislature to propose and pass laws via a statewide election. Each election, there are sometimes more than a dozen measures crowding the ballot competing for voters' attention.

This year, initiatives have qualified that would raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour, increase penalties for certain drug and theft crimes and require high-school students to take a personal finance course before they can graduate.

Some ballot measures have been removed. The California Supreme Court last week removed a measure that would have made it harder to raise taxes. Business groups and legislative leaders reached a compromise last week to withdraw a measure that would have repealed a state law that allows workers to sue their employers for labor violations.

The ballot measures that are left will require expensive campaigns to advocate for or against them — campaigns that can cost as much as $20 million or more because California has some of the country's most expensive media markets.

Going to the ballot is more than just expensive — it's risky. Once a campaign fails, it can take years for supporters to try again. Voters have rejected attempts to either repeal or change California's housing law three times before, in 1974, 1980 and 1993.

The housing law dates to 1949, when the federal Housing Act banned racial discrimination in public housing projects. A year later, voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring the government to get voter approval before using public money to build affordable housing.

Decades later, California is the only state that has a law like this, and it only applies to public funding for affordable housing, which is disproportionately used by people of color.

Over the years, lawmakers have found ways around the law. They changed the definition of “low-rent housing project” to mean any development where more than 49% of the units are set aside for people with low incomes. Anything less than that doesn’t require an election.

And last year, lawmakers passed and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that exempted housing developments that received funding from various state programs.