National news is full of stories about how legislators in red states are undermining our democracy by unraveling the integrity of the ballot initiative process. It turns out that legislators in mostly blue California may do the same thing if they pass Senate Bill 10.
Packaged as yet another silver bullet to California’s housing crisis, SB 10 is aimed at increasing housing supply in areas that are already developed; however, loopholes could still allow building in undeveloped areas. It would allow up to 10 housing units to be constructed on parcels that meet certain conditions, regardless of existing zoning ordinances or general plan policies. But rather than deliver the kind of policy changes that vulnerable tenants and housing justice organizations agree are needed to address the affordability crisis and prevent families from becoming unhoused, the bill swerves into wholly undemocratic territory.
SB 10 does not include important inclusionary or other provisions to ensure that newly built homes will be priced affordably. The legislation also provides no funds to support housing construction, despite California’s record $75 billion surplus. It does not direct cities and counties to move faster to meet state-mandated regional housing goals. It does, however, allow housing developments to move forward without going through the appropriate environmental review process, raising concerns that this could open the door for homes to be built on toxic land or next to polluting industries.
Housing supply should benefit both local communities and the environment, but we must ensure that new housing is affordable to working-class residents, includes community input and protects public health — especially for communities already overburdened with pollution.
In addition to critical concerns about the affordability and safety of housing built under SB 10, the bill threatens our ability to have a say in housing and land use decisions at the local level. It allows city councils and boards of supervisors to override voter-adopted initiative measures in exchange for higher-density housing, thus setting a troubling standard that could eventually render the initiative power meaningless. This would be a serious blow to the practice of democracy in California.
As the California Supreme Court has explained, the power to adopt local initiatives was added to the California Constitution in 1911 to “enable the people … to reclaim legislative power” from special interests. There is no better example of special interests than deep-pocketed developers pressuring local officials to approve projects on specific parcels of land even when doing so is contrary to a city or county’s long-term development plans.
Voters don’t face such pressures. Indeed, voters often pursue ballot initiatives when their elected officials are politically unwilling to do the right thing. Allowing those same officials to vacate ballot measures cuts the heart out of the initiative process.
SB 10 sets a terrible precedent by chipping away at direct democracy under the guise of addressing the housing crisis. Today, housing is top of mind for California’s legislators, and for good reason. But if an insubstantial bill can justify gutting direct democracy, what’s next? We do not wish to empower city councils and boards of supervisors to unwind living-wage ordinances, tenant protections, fracking bans or other local laws established through the initiative process.
Under the precedent set by SB 10, the Legislature could water down the initiative process, one hot topic at a time, until there is very little substance left.
Building more affordable housing must be a priority, but SB 10 not only underdelivers as a bill to address the housing crisis, it has the potential to hollow out the initiative process and undercut the work of local tenant organizing.
Californians must urge legislators to amend SB 10 to ensure new housing units are safe and affordable, and eliminate provisions that undercut the democratic process. Otherwise, it should be defeated. Tell Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to do everything in their power to stop SB 10, in its current form, from becoming law.
Antonio Diaz is the organizational director at People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.