The ‘scar on our Constitution’ that is Article 34—and why politicians are attempting to repeal it in the name of housing

California needs more housing.

Some estimates say the state needs some 3 million more homes to ease this shortage—but it will ease, not resolve, the problem. This November, Proposition 1 passed with flying colors, putting $4 billion in bonds for subsidized housing—but it won’t build a complete supply of affordable housing.

Add onto this sky-high housing costs that have put 8 million Californians at the poverty level. The Golden State is the most poverty-stricken in the Union, and absurd laws that have perpetuated inequities between the young and old, between renters and property owners make clear: We have legally created this crisis.

Which is why Sen. Scott Wiener and Sen. Ben Allen are introducing a repeal of Article 34, what Wiener calls “a scar on the California Constitution.”

What is Article 34?

Adopted by voters in 1950, Article 34 of the California Constitution states that “no low rent housing project” can be constructed without electoral approval of a majority of voters.

“Today, the public sector provides low-rent housing through a convoluted spread of funding sources and market incentives, including Low Income Housing Tax Credits, to circumvent this requirement,” said Bay Area journalist Diego Aguilar-Canabal, who has written extensively about Article 34’s history. “By requiring a local popular vote to approve any instance of genuine, municipal social housing, California’s constitution calcifies its widening economic inequality.”

On a practical level, Article 34 means that our own government can’t provide affordable housing. An elected official wants to turn a surface lot into a mid-rise affordable development? A vote would be required, like this one. In the case of Los Angeles, it had to pass an Article 34-compliant ballot measure in 2008 in order to ease the public financing of some 52,000 affordable units.

And though the article’s power has been lessened, albeit slowly, through the courts, its roots in racism and classism—it’s like the Prop 187 of housing—have yet to be determined unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and remains expensive: Complying with Article 34 can add anywhere between $10,000 and $80,000 to the cost of building a low-income home, according Weiner’s office.

“Publicly funded, developed, & owned low income housing is a crucial tool in ensuring people of all income levels can afford housing & in preventing homelessness,” Wiener said. “Article 34 is inherently racist and classist…It was adopted to keep out poor and non-white people. It needs to be repealed.”

Wiener and Allen will be introducing the appeal today in the Senate chambers. After the introduction, a two-thirds approval of both houses of the Legislature will be needed as well as the support of incoming Governor Gavin Newsom for it to be placed on the March or November 2020 ballots.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated the California Department of Housing and Community Development was the source which attributed the additional costs to affordable units; this was an error and that statistic was received from the Office of Senator Scott Wiener.

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