SACRAMENTO — Many residents of California cities that control rent fear a property-rights initiative on the June 3 statewide ballot — and half those cities are in the Bay Area.
Whether renting apartments in downtown Oakland or San Francisco, or mobile homes in Concord or Daly City, thousands of residents embrace caps on their rents in one of the most expensive regions in the nation, say opponents of Proposition 98.
The ballot measure would phase out current rent controls and ban new ones, raising tenants' living costs.
Supporters, however, say the measure's primary purpose is to bolster property ownership rights, not benefit landlords.
And therein lies the confusion, analysts say.
Proposition 98, under the umbrella of property rights, would do two significant things: eliminate rent control and limit government seizure of private property through eminent domain.
Opponents, who have proposed a countermeasure, Proposition 99, say Proposition 98's aim at eminent domain is designed to obscure the rent-control angle, which they say would never pass muster with voters.
"It's a classic bait and switch by landlords to try to trick California voters into getting rid of rental protections," said Dean Preston of Tenants Together, a Bay Area renter advocacy group.
Owners of apartments and mobile homes have donated millions of dollars, the majority of funds, to finance the pro-98 campaign.
If Proposition 98 succeeds, the most affected regions would be Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, Berkeley and San Jose have rent-controlled apartments. Alameda County and several Bay Area cities cap rent for mobile home spaces.
The proposition's sponsor, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and other supporters, downplay the measure's effect on renters, saying the measure's thrust is intended to temper eminent domain legal proceedings.
Steve Edrington, of the Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County, which represents landlords, said that proposition opponents are using "scare-mongering tactics."
"We oppose eminent domain abuse," he said. "It's wrong for some developer to influence government to take your property because they want to build a shopping center. If it's a public use such as a school, road, park, that's a legitimate use."
Eminent domain, part of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has long allowed the government to seize a citizen's land for community uses and without the owner's consent for fair market value.
Proposition 98 proponents say it is part of a national move to curb eminent domain use, which California and local agencies have increasingly employed after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that also allowed taking property for private use as long as there was public benefit.
Since states can restrict eminent domain, there have been several attempts in the Legislature to amend rules in California, as well as a ballot measure. All have failed due to hitches in the complex issue.
Similarly with Proposition 98, a coalition led by the League of California Cities says the measure would carry underlying effects jeopardizing environmental protections and resulting in frivolous lawsuits and higher taxpayer costs. The assertions are denied by supporters.
Nevertheless, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a San Francisco Democrat, and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger say they oppose Proposition 98 because it would undermine infrastructure projects.
A leading foe of Proposition 98, the League of California Cities, is sponsoring the other eminent domain initiative on the June 3 ballot — Proposition 99. The "No on Proposition 98, Yes on Proposition 99" effort is backed by a coalition of associations representing local government agencies, labor unions, tenant organizations and environmental groups.
Analysts say the measure, which shields only single-family homes from being taken for private uses, was placed on the ballot to kill Proposition 98.
If both measures pass and Proposition 99 has more votes than Proposition 98, Proposition 99 declares all of Proposition 98 void, not just clauses that are contradictory, which is the normal procedure when conflicting measures both win.
But it's the emotional, rent-control aspect of Proposition 98 that has been a lightning rod. It would continue caps only until current tenants vacate.
The measure has triggered demonstrations in the Bay Area, including in Oakland and San Francisco.
"This is a hot-button issue in Oakland," said Adam Gold of Just Cause Oakland, one of the renter advocacy groups that have joined protests.
Following protests, pro-proposition groups, such as the Contra Costa County Taxpayers Association, have held news conferences.
On the issue of rent control, Proposition 98 proponents — many of whom see rent control as an unfair taking of profits — point out that numerous economists agree that rent control doesn't work and has driven down the quantity and quality of housing.
Even so, another category of Proposition 98 foes, mobile home owners — many of them seniors on fixed incomes — say they would be affected no less than apartment renters if rental space charges went up even a few hundred dollars a month.
"Some of the residents would literally have to make a decision whether they'd pay rent, or buy medicine, or buy food," said Gus Colgain of San Jose, a spokesman for the California Mobile Home Owners Resources and Action Association.
In the building war of rhetoric and ads, clarity on the issue has been the victim — a factor that analysts say may loom large at the polls.
Backers have portrayed their measure as shielding families from being ousted from homes to make way for shops meant simply to bolster tax revenues, rather than carry out legitimate redevelopment.
At the same time, foes have portrayed poor families being forced out of apartments by skyrocketing rent bills.
Not surprisingly, analysts say, a statewide Public Policy Institute of California poll, released last week, showed more than a fifth of those surveyed are still uncertain how to vote.
"That so many likely voters are still undecided with such a short time to go before Election Day is a reflection of the confusion that these ballot measures have generated," said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Cal State East Bay.
Proposition 98 has fueled the sole lively, big-money campaign on the ballot, which still carries candidates' races but follows an early presidential primary this year.
Owners of apartments and mobile home parks and the associations that represent them have contributed most of the funds to promote Proposition 98 and oppose Proposition 99, according to campaign-finance records that must be filed with the Secretary of State's Office. The total since Jan. 1 has topped $4.8 million.
"Five-hundred of California's wealthiest landlords have reached into their deep pockets to fund this deceptive scheme," according to a No on Proposition 98 Campaign statement last week. "A few million now could put tens of millions in their pockets later."
The other side has raised a similar amount since the beginning of the year — more than $4.2 million.
But the PPIC survey indicates neither of the propositions has attained majority approval.
"When faced with confusing propositions or when in doubt about what the effect of a proposition would be, the public votes no," Michelson said. "While the public supports limiting the power of eminent domain, they are not at all convinced that voting for one or both of these propositions would have that effect."
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Proposition would bar government from taking for private uses an owner-occupied home under eminent domain legal proceedings.
Details can be found at
Proposition would bar government from taking private property for private uses, such as shopping malls, under eminent domain legal proceedings. It also would phase out rent control.
Details can be found at
The Money behind the Campaigns
A MediaNews analysis of reports filed with the state shows:
Landlords and mobile home park owners donated most of a $4.8 million war chest between Jan. 1 and May 17. Since then, property owners have contributed more than $180,000, with the largest donation -- $75,000 -- coming from a Washington mobile home park owner with California sites.
Since Jan. 1, committees aligned with a coalition of groups -- representing local government agencies, labor unions, tenants and environmentalists -- have raised $4.2 million. Pro-98 supporters accused the coalition of laundering campaign money from corporate interests, failing to disclose donors' identities, and illegally tapping taxpayer funds -- assertions the coalition has denied.