Ben Allen. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The California state senator representing Santa Monica is looking to put a referendum on the ballot in 2020 that will make it easier for cities to build affordable housing.

Sen. Ben Allen is proposing repealing an amendment to the California state constitution voters approved in 1950 that requires cities to hold a citywide vote before funding any affordable housing project. Many cities work around Article 34 by asking residents to approve certain numbers of affordable units, creating a pool of approved units developers can then pull from to build new projects.

That process adds between $10,000 and $80,000 to the cost of building low-income housing, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Allen said it’s not only expensive, but antiquated.

“It’s part of an old-school mentality we’ve moved past,” he said. “To single out a particular type of development based on the income status of the residents is pretty classist and not in accordance with California values.”

Voters may have voted against repealing Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which would have paved the way to expand rent control across the state, but Allen said he’s optimistic that Californians will support the measure.

“Over the past few years, California voters have made their priorities really clear and supported ballot measures dedicating money to the housing and homelessness crisis,” he said. “They want more affordable housing built sooner rather than later and there’s something in the state constitution standing in the way.”

The real estate industry donated millions to the campaign against Prop. 10, which would have repealed Costa-Hawkins. Allen said he thinks the industry was able to convince voters that the proposition would have exacerbated the housing crisis and it would be difficult to use that argument against his proposal.

Allen said his proposal is respectful of local control over housing, which he thinks voters will appreciate. Other pro-housing proposals state legislators are working on, such as Sen. Scott Wiener’s plan to require cities to approve apartments in transit- and job-rich areas, take a certain degree of zoning power away from city governments, Allen said.

If his proposal became law, elected representatives would still decide whether or not to support affordable housing projects.

“On the one hand, it’s clearly a pro-housing measure,” Allen said. “The difference is that it … doesn’t take away any powers from local elected representatives to make decisions as they see fit.”

Affordable housing advocates, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have expressed support for the proposal, and urban planning experts agree that Article 34’s time is up.

“Article 34 is a grossly exclusionary law and its repeal is long overdue,” said Michael Lens, a UCLA urban planning professor. “I do not see the least bit of downside with getting rid of it.”

Allen’s bill requires the approval of two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature for it to be placed on the March or November 2020 ballot.

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