Dueling ballot initiatives dealing with the same subject — reforming the government’s ability to take private property under eminent domain — will share center stage in California’s June 3 statewide primary election. Though the official titles given Props. 98 and 99 by the state attorney general are very similar, their intentions and effects couldn’t be farther apart.

Prop. 98’s opponents say that besides keeping governments from taking private property to transfer it to another private party, the measure would destroy rent control and eliminate most tenant protections, end requirements that developers must make part of their units “affordable,” and gut many environmental and land use requirements.

Their rival measure, Prop. 99, would keep the government from using eminent domain to take a home and transfer it to a private developer, period. It is written so that if both measures pass but Prop. 99 passes with a bigger margin, it would become law.

The No on 98, Yes on 99 campaign lists nearly 200 labor, business, environmental, tenant, mobile homeowner and other organizations and elected officials. Among them are two not often seen on the same page: the California Labor Federation and the California Chamber of Commerce.

Among Prop. 98’s initiators is the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. This is the far right group that 30 years ago initiated California’s Prop. 13, which claimed to protect homeowners from soaring taxes but in fact curbed local governments’ ability to fund education, libraries and other municipal services.

Prop. 98 explicitly bars rent control after current residents of a rent-controlled property move out. But, warned Julie Spezia, Executive Director of the Housing California coalition, “Its impact is much broader than just the people who live with rent control. It includes all renters, because it would end the 60-day notice that must be given for a no-cause eviction.”

Noting that the rental housing market has become tighter than ever in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, Spezia predicted destroying all protections against evictions would result in many more people becoming homeless, especially families who need housing with more bedrooms.

“We think [Prop. 98] is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Spezia said, “that essentially the concern the public has about eminent domain is being addressed in Prop. 99, with a fairly elegant and simple solution.”

According to the California Budget Project, over 4 out of 10 households in the state rent their homes.

Both Spezia and Jodi Reid, executive director of the California Alliance for Retired Americans, said seniors and disabled people would be most sharply affected.

Mseniors in urban areas are renters, Reid said, while many more live in mobile home parks, renting land on which their homes are placed.

While landlords whose property is under rent control, and mobile home park owners, can now raise rents annually based on the cost of living and the consumer price index, she said, allowing unlimited increases would create a disastrous situation.

“If you look at the contributions,” Reid added, “it’s the real estate community and the apartment house and mobile home park owners that have underwritten [Prop. 98], because this is a sneaky way to do what they have been trying to do for years, and do it under the auspices of eminent domain.”

Though much attention has focused on tenants and mobile home residents, Prop. 98 has far broader potential consequences. “People want to have the ability to make decisions about how their communities are going to grow and change,” said Oakland-based planning and development consultant Vivian Kahn. “They feel communities should be able to make decisions to preserve those parts of the community that they want to keep, and to make improvements, and this measure would constrain that.”

In 2006 California voters defeated Prop. 90, a similar but milder measure, by 48 to 52 percent. In the same year, voters in Washington and Idaho voted down comparable initiatives, but such a measure passed in Alaska.

In 2004 Oregon voters passed a requirement that local taxpayers pay landowners for restricting development in protected zones, or waive protections and let development proceed. But last November they modified the measure.

mbechtel @pww.org

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