Reading the Props: Would 21 Be Better With a Different Sponsor?

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)

Every two years, I read the full text of all statewide ballot propositions—because at least one Californian should.

Next is 21

Prop 21 is the one measure I struggle to read objectively, because I know too much about the person behind it.

That’s Michael Weinstein, of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. He’s spent years waging weird wars against the development of housing, particularly dense, transit oriented housing, here in Los Angeles. And he’s used a bullying political style both in housing and in health care. The New York Times once described Weinstein as “the Koch brothers of public health: a mastermind driven by ideology, accountable to no one, with bottomless funds and an agenda marked by financial opportunism and puritanical extremes.”

Prop 21’s campaign has some of that spirit; it has relied on Trump-affiliated consultants, and has gone personally after a No on 21 consultant.

The text is less extreme than a previous Weinstein measure on rent control. It’s not long, and actually cuts roughly as much as it adds.

At its heart, it replaces the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which allowed local governments to use rent control only on housing first occupied before February 1995. This gives local governments more power, and makes a shift on timing. Now, properties occupied first within the last 15 years are exempt from local control.

Like too many measures, Prop 21 adds a new supermajority to our supermajority-mad state; it would take a 2/3 vote of the legislature to change Prop 21.

One big, hard question about Prop 21 is context. The pandemic has produced new protections for renters that are far stronger than anything here. Those measures also have imposed costs on landlords. Does Prop 21, drafted before the pandemic, fit where we are now?

In such a moment, you’d want to see an initiative sponsor who is flexible and good at playing well with others, so that California might achieve the right outcome for renters. Prop 21’s sponsor doesn’t fit that bill.

 

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