As California experiences a housing shortage amid soaring market rates, the need for affordable housing in Humboldt County is greater than ever. In an effort to create more housing across the state, California lawmakers are trying to get rid of a classist and antiquated law that has stymied the creation of low-income housing in California for decades.
Article 34, which was passed by voters as Proposition 10 in November 1950, is a provision of the California Constitution that prohibits the development of any low-income housing project with federal, state or local financing without voter approval. No other type of housing is subject to such a requirement in California.
Before we delve into ongoing efforts to repeal Article 34, let’s take a look into its sordid past, which, interestingly enough, stemmed from a low-income housing development dispute that occurred in Eureka in the late 1940s.
Eureka rises up against federal funds
In accordance with the Housing Act of 1937, which was amended in 1949, housing authorities across the nation entered into agreements with the federal government to receive federal funds to build “low rent” housing. Housing eligibility would be determined by whether the applicant’s family income “was too small for them to afford decent housing,” according to coverage of a Eureka City Council meeting in the Oct. 3, 1949, edition of the Humboldt Times. World War I and II veterans would have priority.
“The city’s only obligation under the proposed housing program would be to provide services which are provided for ordinary property owners,” the article stated. “The low-rent housing would be tax free, but in lieu of the tax exemption the housing authority would be permitted to make a payment of ten per cent of the shelter rent to the city.”
Eurekans came out in droves, reportedly filling the council’s chambers and staying past midnight to call for a public vote and to speak against the low-income housing project at the council’s next meeting, according to the Humboldt Times. Despite public outcry, the council passed the resolution, approving the Eureka Housing Authority’s application for a preliminary loan of $150,000 to build 500 low-income housing units at its Nov. 1, 1949, meeting.
Led by local attorney Ernest Mitchell, disgruntled residents then circulated a petition to force the repeal of the resolution. By February 1950, the petition had garnered 1,822 signatures and was sent to the City Clerk, who refused to accept the petition.
“Two actions have been taken before the superior court [in Humboldt County],” a Feb. 3, 1950, article in the Humboldt Times read. “One to cause the City Clerk to show cause why she should not accept the petitions and the other to enjoin the housing authority from proceeding with the program. … The writ of prohibition just issued by the state supreme court prohibited hearing on both actions.”
In the June 1950 judgment, Housing Authority of City of Eureka v. Superior Court In and for Humboldt County, the California Supreme Court sided with the City and stated that the actions of local governments under statewide housing laws are “administrative only for the purpose of giving statewide effect to the declared legislative policy. …”
“Because the housing authority law is of statewide concern, it is not subject to referendum,” the judgment stated. “That may well be one factor in determining whether an act is administrative or legislative. If the law is of a statewide nature, then even a charter city has no word in policy questions which are involved in legislation of this character.”
The court case piqued the interest of the California Real Estate Association, the predecessor of today’s California Association of Realtors, which came up with a ballot initiative to combat the Humboldt County Superior Court’s ruling. Proposition 10 proposed to amend the California constitution in such a way as to require voter approval to authorize publicly funded low-income housing projects.
Proponents of the measure said voters should have a say in whether or not low-income housing is built in their communities. Opponents argued that the proposition was merely an attempt to discourage the construction of affordable housing by erecting unnecessary and cumbersome procedural barriers.
California voters narrowly passed Proposition 10 in November 1950 with a 50.78 percent majority – less than a 50,000-vote margin – adding Article 34 to the constitution.
When looking back at the momentum behind 34, it’s important to remember that at the time, discrimination in housing “was the norm,” Sanjay Wagle, senior vice president of government affairs with the California Association of Realtors, wrote in an email to the Outpost.
“One [argument] was playing on fears that public housing could result in projects with low-income, nonwhite residents being placed in white areas resulting in the integration of neighborhoods … ,” Wagle explained. “Related to that, proponents played on fears that low-income projects would hurt the property values of a community generally but, in particular, if such projects contained nonwhite residents. The other argument was generally against the government spending taxpayer dollars on what were called ‘socialist’ programs, in general, and especially without voter approval.”
Wagle added that, despite the organization’s support for Article 34 at the time of its inception, today the California Association of Realtors “strongly support[s] fair housing legislation, removing discriminatory housing laws and the repeal of Article 34.”
Undoing the damage
Attempts to repeal the constitutional amendment have been unsuccessful thus far. The amendment survived an equal protection challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 (James v. Valtierra). In 1980 and 1993 California voters rejected ballot measures to repeal or amend Article 34.
State Senators Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and Scott Wiener (D- San Francisco) introduced legislation to repeal Article 34 in December 2018 but the measure failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote from the California State Assembly for referral.
“Article 34 is a scar on the California Constitution – designed to keep people of color and poor people out of certain neighborhoods – and it needs to be repealed,” Wiener said in a prepared statement. “Publicly owned affordable housing for low-income people is critical to reduc[ing] homelessness and ensuring that housing is available to people of all income levels. This important source of housing shouldn’t be singled out for voter approval when other types of housing aren’t.”
Undeterred, the two senators tried again with Senate Constitutional Amendment 2 in December 2020. The initiative cleared the State Senate in a unanimous 37-0 vote, with three senators absent, this January. The bill was sent to the state Assembly, where it has been “held at desk” for the last two months.
Cathy Mudge, a spokesperson for Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa), told the Outpost that the bill must be assigned to a committee before moving forward. Mudge could not say when the assembly would review and vote on the initiative but underscored Wood’s support for legislation that will make room for more affordable housing in California.
“Assemblymember Wood supports efforts that could bring necessary and much needed affordable housing to all communities and also would want to eliminate barriers to that happening,” she wrote via email. “Housing affordability is a challenge everywhere in the state.”
State Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) called Article 34 “blatantly racist” and urged its immediate repeal.
“Even in an era of extreme division in American politics, Democrats and Republicans in the California Legislature agree that this racist amendment must go,” McGuire told the Outpost. “This law has been on the books for well over a half-century now and it’s blatantly racist. California is the only state in the union with a law like this on books. We got to get rid of it now.”
It should be noted that Article 34 is much less of a barrier than it used to be. Many counties and municipalities across the state have passed local laws to counteract its impacts and make way for the construction of affordable housing.
Humboldt County voters passed Measure I in November 2020, authorizing the development of affordable housing for low-income families, seniors and folks with disabilities in up to 2.5 percent of housing units in unincorporated areas of the county. Arcata and Eureka passed measures to mitigate Article 34 as well.
Arcata voters passed Measure L in 1992. The measure authorized the development and construction of 250 low-income housing units, or up to five percent of the total number of housing units in Arcata, whichever is greater.
Eureka’s Measure O was approved by voters in 2016. The measure increased the number of low-income housing units in the city to three percent — or 368 of 12,286 existing housing units — in the city.
Before such measures were enacted locally, Humboldt County “didn’t produce low-income housing for decades,” said Nezzie Wade, president of Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives (AHHA).
“We hadn’t allowed for any other types of housing other than single-family dwellings, which would obviously be supportive of the middle and upper classes but not much for the working class,” she told the Outpost. “…There has been a lot of effort to try and get rid of Article 34 because it’s kept people from getting into much-needed housing.
The push to create more housing – specifically low-income housing – has been met with significant pushback. The EaRTH Center, the City of Eureka’s latest housing endeavor, will contain an intermodal transit center and at least 31 dwelling units, with 27 of them designated for low-, very-low- and moderate-income tenants, including students.
While the majority of the community’s concern seems to focus on how the project will impact parking in downtown and Old Town Eureka, many others have raised concerns about the potential increase in crime allegedly associated with a low-income development.
“The perception of affordable housing has proven to not necessarily be a barrier, but definitely a divisive component of affordable housing,” Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery told the Outpost. “Some of those that oppose the proposed developments have a perception of affordable housing akin to Section 8 housing, transitional housing or permanent supportive housing. Along with this misperception comes the idea that these developments will result in increased crime, drug use and loitering. This is definitely not the case, not only for Section 8, transitional and permanent supportive housing but also for affordable housing.”
Slattery added that the non-student tenants of the proposed EaRTH Center development “will be gainfully employed.” To qualify for a low-income unit, single tenants will make, at most, $40,000 per year while those qualifying for very-low-income units can make up to $25,000 per year.
“These people are your relatives, current neighbors and people that take care of you and your family … ,” he said. “The tenants will be the servers at your local restaurant, the cashier at your local bakery, the administrative assistant that receives calls from clients, the maintenance worker that paves your streets, the teller at all of our local banks and even the nurse that cares for your family. Employees of all of these professions are finding it increasingly difficult to find housing that their wages can support.”
There is a profound need for housing of all kinds in California. Anything that stands between the creation of new housing is not considering the state’s best interest given the housing crisis, Wagle added.
Even with overwhelming support in the state legislature, the challenge to repealing Article 34 is finding adequate funding to get the word out to voters.
“We’re ready to put it on the ballot, but it’s going to require a significant statewide campaign, and those don’t come cheap,” Sen. Wiener wrote in an email to the Outpost. “I’m hopeful we can get this off the ground soon.”
Likewise, McGuire said he is confident that the legislature will pass the amendment this year, but he echoed Wiener’s concern about funding a statewide campaign.
“The education of the general public about this amendment and having the resources to advance those efforts will be the challenge ahead,” McGuire said. “…It’s beyond time that California mobilizes to abolish this blatantly racist law. I firmly believe what makes California so strong is our diversity and we need to have housing diversity in our communities.”