Renters Fear 'Trojan Horse' Ballot Measure

Saturday, May 10, 2008
Samantha Young
The Modesto Bee

SACRAMENTO - Barbara Gonzalez has lived in a two-bedroom duplex in northwest Los Angeles for 13 years, protected from the region's soaring housing costs by the city's rent-control ordinance.

That could change, and Gonzalez could find herself paying hundreds of dollars more in monthly rent, if voters approve one of two property rights initiatives on the June 3 primary election ballot.

One of the measures, Proposition 98, is supported by landlords and business owners and contains a provision that would phase out local rent-control ordinances for apartments, duplexes and mobile home parks.

It would eliminate tenant-protection rules that could make it easier for landlords to evict renters. The ballot measure is opposed by renters groups, mobile home residents, senior advocates and some of the state's leading politicians.

For Gonzalez, voter approval of Proposition 98 would most likely mean her landlord could find ways to evict her from her $745-a-month duplex, she says. She said typical rents for two-bedroom units in her Echo Park neighborhood range from $1,800 to $1,900 a month.

"We won't have the protections we have now," said Gonzalez, a 49-year-old tenants' organizer who shares her home with her daughter and son-in-law. "If they don't like the music I put on or they don't like that I have visitors, they are going to evict me and I have to rent another place that is three times more expensive than I was living in."

The rent-control and eviction provisions of Proposition 98 have become a flashpoint in the campaign leading to the June 3 primary.

Opponents say the backers of Proposition 98 have downplayed the provisions and created a deceptive campaign.

That initiative and its rival on the June 3 ballot, Proposition 99, address the rights of property owners when governments want to seize their land for projects designed to benefit the public.

They focus on the degree to which local and state governments can employ eminent domain - the ability to seize private land for public good.

Both initiatives would require governments to pay property owners fair market value if their land is taken.

But Proposition 98 is much more restrictive. In addition to its provisions affecting renters, it would greatly limit governments' ability to seize property, even when the intention is to improve blighted downtown business districts.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has criticized Proposition 98, saying its restrictions on the use of eminent domain would undermine the ability of government to build freeways, dams and other public works projects.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, have issued statements opposing Proposition 98. They said they worry the initiative would prevent California from expanding its network of dams or building canals to transport water at a time when there is increasing concern about the state's long-term water supply.

"It is reckless and would tie the state's hands in dealing with a wide range of critical issues," Feinstein said.

Proposition 98 is part of a national backlash to a 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, the court found that a Connecticut redevelopment authority had the right to seize private property for hotels, shopping centers and other private developments.

That decision marked a departure from the traditional use of eminent domain, typically employed when governments sought to build roads, schools or other so-called public use projects.

The ruling in the Connecticut case has become a rallying point for property-rights advocates around the country who say governments are overstepping their authority.

Proposition 98's architects - the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation and the California Farm Bureau - say eminent domain reform also must also target government regulations that apply to rent control because they trample on the rights of private property owners.

They cite ordinances in 13 California cities, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica and San Francisco.

Proposition 98 would not raise rents on current tenants who live in rent-controlled apartments, but would raise them to market rates when a tenant has moved out. The next occupant would not be covered by rent control.

"We believe rent control and government regulation are private property rights issues," said Michael Shaw, legislative director of the National Federation of Independent Business in California. "It's impounding the rights of property owners who have apartment units or mobile home parks where they've invested their hard-earned money."

The Proposition 98 campaign has raised nearly $3 million from business owners and landlords.

Of that, $50,000 was donated by a property management company operated by Sam Zell, the Chicago-based real estate mogul who also is chairman and chief executive of the company that owns the Los Angeles Times. A Zell spokeswoman said the two companies operate independently.

The California AARP has not endorsed either measure but has alerted its 3.3 million members to what it describes as a deceptive advertising campaign by Proposition 98. A radio ad features the voices of children worried about losing their homes because their city wants to replace their neighborhood with a mall. It does not mention Proposition 98's provisions targeting California's renters, among them mobile home park residents who typically own their units but rent the land under them.

"We think that it is a real Trojan horse. It's pretending to be about eminent domain when it in fact does greater damage," said Jeannine English, president of the California AARP. "It says it's doing one thing, but in fact it's just really a scheme to make it difficult for people to find affordable housing."

Beyond the housing provisions, Proposition 98 would forbid governments from condemning homes, businesses or farms for private development. It also could free developers from local affordable-housing requirements when they build new subdivisions and prevent government from taking land for its water or other natural resources.

Governments would retain their constitutional right to buy private property for roads, schools, libraries and other public projects. But Proposition 98's opponents say the initiative would prohibit redevelopment projects intended to clean up blighted areas and would jeopardize public water projects.

Proposition 99, sponsored by the California League of Cities, would protect homeowners while allowing greater leeway for governments.

It would no longer allow redevelopment agencies to use eminent domain powers to take homes on behalf of private developers.

It would only slightly modify existing eminent domain law in California, according to the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. Only homeowners who have been in their home for at least a year consistently would be safe from government redevelopment projects.

Property rights advocates say that's not enough protection.

"Why would they spend millions of dollars to put an initiative on the ballot that doesn't do anything? The answer to that is to confuse voters," said Shaw, of the independent business federation. "These are the groups that benefit from the status quo."

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