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Bay Area lawmaker seeks repeal of racist anti-housing law

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Article 34 of the California Constitution is a frequent target for repeal efforts

california state capitol building Photo by Rada Photos/Shutterstock

San Francisco-based State Sen. Scott Wiener announced via Twitter Monday that he will back an effort to repeal Article 34 of the California Constitution, calling it “a racist provision [...] that singles out public housing” and a “scar on California.”

Added in 1950, Article 34 makes it more difficult to create low-income housing by subjecting construction to a public vote.

The article reads, in part:

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 [...] approve such project by voting in favor thereof at an election to be held for that purpose, or at any general or special election.

For the purposes of this Article the term “low rent housing project” shall mean any development composed of urban or rural dwellings, apartments or other living accommodations for persons of low income.

[...] “Persons of low income” shall mean persons or families who lack the amount of income which is necessary (as determined by the state public body developing, constructing, or acquiring the housing project) to enable them, without financial assistance, to live in decent, safe and sanitary dwellings.

The common argument backing Article 34 is that affordable housing is a public asset and therefore the public gets oversight on it.

But, unsurprisingly, there’s a long history of some California communities employing the vote mechanism for racist political ends, and blocking new housing by playing on fears about integrated neighborhoods.

Writing in the Santa Clara Law Review in 1993, attorney Kathleen Morgan-Martinez noted that a federal court struck down Article 34 in 1971, deeming it racially discriminatory.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision, deciding that the law did not explicitly include “distinctions based on race”—at least not in its actual text.

“It’s a white supremacist chapter in the state’s history,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times. Garcetti is campaigning for a repeal, and Santa Monica-based Senator Ben Allen is pushing for a 2020 ballot measure doing away with Article 34.

Wiener’s public backing adds a Northern California front to the war on the ’50s-era housing law. But Article 34 has weathered several previous repeal attempts, the last one in 1993.

That measure, Proposition 168, failed with just over 40 percent of the vote, although it was popular in San Francisco, where it carried over 65 percent of the vote.

Alameda County voters backed the repeal too, but the rest of the Bay Area joined the state at large by batting it down.

Under state law, two-thirds of California lawmakers in both chambers will have to back the repeal to qualify for the 2020 ballot.