Units at the San Francisco Housing Authority’s Sunnydale public housing project. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Legalize public housing

California’s housing shortage is getting worse.

In this hot housing market, private developers who are incentivized solely to turn a profit are building to the top of the market.

We need to build more housing than ever, but rents on new market rate construction are getting higher. The lowest income Californians are forced to wait for filtering to bring costs of housing down or rely on minimal nonprofit housing construction. Or in the event that they already have a rent-controlled unit, hang on for dear life in a market where landlords are incentivized to get rid of them.

Public housing could be a solution to this problem. Mass construction of public housing could immediately meet low-income residents’ needs and keep new units permanently off of the private market.

Unfortunately, building public housing is an uphill battle because, in many cases, it’s illegal.

Faircloth Amendment

The Faircloth Amendment, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1999, quite literally prohibits the construction of more public housing.

Under the Faircloth Amendment, the supply of public housing is capped at 1999 levels. In order to build a new public housing unit, the federal government is required to either abolish an existing unit or sell it to a private buyer.

Snuck through with relatively little controversy at the time, the Faircloth Amendment came after years of disinvestment in public housing.

When public housing programs in the United States were at their peak in the New Deal era, public housing was predominantly occupied by middle class white people.

It was only after World War II when subsidies for homeownership were introduced that black people were barred from accessing that public housing became associated with low-income people of color. Racist arguments were used to sway public opinion against public housing and funding of public housing programs was slashed.

Article 34

California took the prohibition on constructing new public housing a step further than either the federal government or any other state in the union.

After a bitter campaign motivated by racist sentiment, California voters embedded prohibitions on the construction of public housing into the state constitution in 1950.

Article 34 of the California state constitution requires majority voter approval at the ballot for government-funded construction of any low-income housing project including public housing.

After several municipalities tried and failed to approve public housing projects at the ballot, municipalities in California have all but given up on constructing affordable housing themselves. Low-income housing construction has been passed off to private entities in the form of nonprofit developers, who use alternate sources of funding for their projects including taxes paid by for-profit developers.

In other words, California’s restrictions on government funded low income housing projects ties the funding of low income housing development to the private market.

Advocates call for change

Momentum is growing to repeal both the Faircloth Amendment and Article 34.

To my knowledge, 2020 is the first presidential primary where we’ve seen any Democratic candidate even mention the Faircloth Amendment. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro all list repealing the Faircloth Amendment as a priority in their housing platforms on their website.

In California, senators Ben Allen and San Francisco’s Scott Wiener introduced constitutional amendment SCA 1 to repeal Article 34 in the legislature. Were SCA 1 to pass, the constitutional amendment would then have to be approved at the ballot by a supermajority of state voters.

The fact that legislators are paying attention to this issue is in large part to the credit of grassroots organizers.

A nationwide coalition of organizers and policy writers with nonprofit People’s Action released the Homes Guarantee proposal earlier this year. The goal of the in-depth policy proposal which the team hopes will gain similar momentum to the Green New Deal is to “ensure every person in the U.S. has safe, accessible, sustainable, and permanently affordable housing.”

The team has already had luck reaching legislators. Rep. Ilhan Omar worked closely with the Homes Guarantee team to develop the Homes for All Act introduced last week. The Homes for All Act would repeal the Faircloth Amendment and construct over 12 million social housing units.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also introduced a Green New Deal for Public Housing this month, which would rehab the nation’s existing stock of public housing that is crumbling due to disinvestment with an eye towards environmental sustainability. The Green New Deal for Public Housing would also repeal the Faircloth Amendment to pave the way for new public housing construction.

Grassroots organizers are the wind where politicians are weathervanes.

Repealing these racist policies starts with tenants reading about these policies and talking about them.

Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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