Taking advantage

Why Proposition 98 could toss out local affordable-housing rules

When you go to the polls this June, you’ll find Proposition 98, a ballot measure that would eliminate rent control in the state of California. Living in Sacramento, you might then scratch your head and think, “Rent control? What’s that?”

Because aside from a couple of small pockets of mobile-home parks, rent control is an alien concept to Sacramentans, much more important to our neighbors in the Bay Area and parts of Southern California than here.

But there are other ways in which Proposition 98 could spell trouble for local affordable-housing laws. Sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and an array of landlord groups, the initiative makes it illegal for the government to take someone’s property and give it to another entity for private use.

Proposition 98 defines “taking,” in part, to include regulations “limiting the price a private owner may charge to another person to purchase, occupy or use his real property.” In this way, it’s specifically written to phase out rent-control laws around the state.

But affordable-housing advocates think the measure would also eliminate Sacramento County policies that require developers to build affordable housing along with their higher-priced units—called “inclusionary housing” laws.

“In Sacramento, the loss of inclusionary housing is probably the bigger issue,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance.

The idea behind inclusionary housing, sometimes called mixed-income development, is to help affordable housing keep pace with the rest of the market.

“It means better racial integration and better economic integration. It means that your neighborhood is not going to be all low-income people or all wealthy people,” Roller explained.

And mixed-income policies are aimed at slowing the ghettoization of older urban areas that fall behind their newer, more affluent neighbors as investment moves to the suburbs.

“Part of the struggle for low-income neighborhoods is that they are low-opportunity neighborhoods. Inclusionary zoning gives low-income people access to better schools, access to better foods and other opportunities that they would not otherwise have.”

In Sacramento, the current law requires that 15 percent of all new homes or apartments be made affordable to low-income families. They have been controversial; affordable-housing advocates and the North State Building Industry Association have battled in the courts and in the county Board of Supervisors chambers ever since the law was adopted in 2004. The city of Sacramento has a similar law on the books, but it currently applies only to “new growth areas” of the city, like Natomas. Roller and others fear that Proposition 98 could be the end of both laws.

“That is absolutely not true,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and one of the initiative’s main authors. He said that his group looked specifically at the issue of inclusionary housing and never intended for those policies to be affected by the measure. There is language spelling out that “nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit or impair voluntary agreements between a property owner and a public agency to develop or rehabilitate affordable housing.”

But Coupal acknowledged that the meaning of “voluntary” is subject to debate and the subject of ongoing court fights. Many developers would argue there’s nothing voluntary about complying with the affordable-housing rules. “If the courts say these laws are not permitted, that’s the way it breaks,” he conceded.

However, Coupal’s argument is bolstered by the fact that the main opponents of the affordable-housing rules aren’t exactly enthusiastic about his measure.

“I would love to see inclusionary zoning go away,” said Dennis Rogers, senior vice president of the North State California Building Industry Association. But he said that he’s not sure Proposition 98 would actually do that for him. “From the attorneys I’ve talked to, there’s a high degree of skepticism that would happen,” under the proposed new law. His group hasn’t yet taken a position on Proposition 98.

Roller and Rogers don’t agree on much, but they both figure that even if Proposition 98 passes, it’s headed directly from the ballot to the courts.

“This measure is going to be instantly litigated,” said Rogers.

“If this thing passes, it’s going to be tied up in the courts for years,” Roller agreed.