Smart Initiative Reform Took Place in Sacramento. So Where Was the Media?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Where was the media?

The Citizens Initiative Review – the best proven way we have to evaluate ballot initiatives around the world – held a California pilot in Sacramento at the end of last month. And the state political media wasn’t there.

What gives? Media folks like to point out the flaws in the initiative process, but then miss an opportunity to see a method that has worked in Massachusetts, Oregon, and other Western states. 

Too bad. The process brings together an independent panel of 20 California voters, through a process that uses random selection of registered voters and then is anonymously balanced to reflect the electorate. Then they hear testimony and ask questions about one ballot measure, and write a brief summary and arguments for or against.

Maybe the media absence resulted from embarrassment. The citizens did a better job of describing the measure they studied in the pilot – Prop 10 – than many media ballot measure guides do.

Here is what the group came up with. It’s important to remember that no one has final approval or oversight over this citizens’ jury.  This is what the members of the panel come up with themselves.

These findings were ranked by citizen panelists, starting with the most important for voters to know. 

  • Prop 10 would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act. This Act currently provides exemptions for rent control on single-family dwellings and housing units built after 1995, and allows rent increases upon vacancy for a unit already rent-controlled. 
  • Prop 10 does not create rent control policies or rent control boards. Instead, it provides communities the option to create such policies and organizations. 
  • Prop 10 allows local communities to determine which types of housing are subject to rent control. Communities could potentially change the number of rent-controlled units available. 
  • Prop 10 does not generate restrictions on the construction of new housing units. 
  • Prop 10 does not take away rental property owners’ guarantee of a fair rate of return. 
  • The rent-controlled housing inventory may be increased by the repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Act, the existing state regulation which now exempts single-family homes and housing built after 1995. 
  • A 2017 Stanford University study showed that San Francisco experienced higher rental costs and insufficient supply of affordable housing under existing rent control policies. 
  • Prop 10 has no direct impact on homeowners who are not landlords, but does provide the opportunity for safeguarding property values and neighborhoods through stronger local rent control policies. “

The panel also produces statements in favor and against each proposition. Here is what they said in support of Prop 10

We find these to be the strongest reasons to vote for the proposition. 

Finding: Prop 10 allows local communities to address predatory housing practices, such as price gouging and unreasonable rent increases, by allowing the creation of stronger local rent control policies. 

This is important because: Without restrictions or guidelines created by rent control policies, higher rents will become more prevalent. This may lead to an increase in homelessness and unsafe living conditions. 

Finding: According to the Principal of Planning for Sustainable Communities, Prop 10 protects renters by limiting rent hikes, and ultimately keeping families in their homes and communities.
This is important because: Rent control would promote stability and prevent displacement, allowing communities to grow and flourish. 

Finding: By limiting rent increases, tenants will have a greater share of disposable income available to spend. This could contribute to the growth of a more vibrant local economy.
This is important because: A majority of California renters spend more than thirty percent of their income on rent. Limiting rent increases helps citizens to meet basic needs and improves quality of life. 

The affordable housing supply in California is not sufficient to meet the demands of our growing state. This drives up rental prices, putting renters of all income levels at risk for displacement, eviction, and/or homelessness. Local governments would be allowed to set rent control policies that meet the needs of their communities. 

And here is what they said against it:

We find these to be the strongest reasons to vote against the proposition. 

  • Finding: Prop 10 rent control policies may reduce the income of property owners. Safe, affordable living options may be reduced if property owners forego maintenance and repairs to cut operating costs. 

This is important because: The lack of safe housing is a serious concern for many communities and could cause neighborhood decline. This may reduce property values. 

  • Finding: Prop 10 allows local governments to dictate rental rates of single-family homes or a room in a home, controlling how much landlords can charge.
    This is important because: Current regulation protects landlords of single-family homes, but the passing of Prop 10 places them at risk of losing their critical right to set their own rates. 
  • Finding: Simply removing the restrictions of the Costa-Hawkins Act does not solve the housing crisis in California.
    This is important because: Repealing the Costa-Hawkins Act would not address the problems of supply and demand for affordable housing. 

Repealing the Costa-Hawkins Act may create more government agencies, adding administrative costs that could be passed on to renters and taxpayers. Rent control has been associated with a slowing of new construction, a reduced supply of rental units, and rent increases. 

California’s initiative process desperately needs more actual voters in the process. Citizens Initiative Review is one way to do it. Similar citizens juries could be used for ballot labels and even to provide a non-monetary way to decide whether a measure belongs on the ballot.

The fact that much of institutional Sacramento and media can’t be bothered to make the short walk to observe something so effective speaks volumes. It’s time for an outsider legislator or an initiative sponsor to back CIR, and return the process to the people.

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