Beware a wolf in sheeps clothing: a call to vote no on 98, yes on 99!

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 propositions. 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 regulations.

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, fire departments 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.”

Laws requiring return of security deposits would also be affected.

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.

A very large number of seniors in urban areas are renters, Reid said, while another large senior contingent lives in mobile home parks, renting the 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.”

Similar measures under the guise of eminent domain have surfaced in other states in recent years. In 2004 Oregon voters passed Measure 37, requiring local taxpayers to pay landowners for restricting development in protected zones, or waive rules to protect farmland, forests and water quality and allow development to proceed. But last November, the state’s voters passed a modified measure banning larger subdivisions, shopping centers and industrial plants in areas not planned for such development.

In 2006 California voters defeated Prop. 90, a similar but milder measure, by a margin of 50 to 48 percent. In the same year, voters in Washington and Idaho voted down comparable initiatives, two of which were portrayed as reforming eminent domain. However, such a measure passed in Arizona.

mbechtel @pww.org