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Project Home: Lawmakers Push to Repeal Article 34, Call Language in California's Constitution Racist

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- In January of 2020, Alameda County Sheriff's deputies in riot gear arrested a group of four women who were occupying a vacant home at 2928 Magnolia Street in Oakland.

For three months, the group of mostly Black, homeless moms turned activists occupied the house to call attention to the housing crisis and the racism at the center of it.

"We cannot have a conversation about housing without having a conversation about race," activist Carroll Fife said.

One year later things look quite different. Lead organizer for Moms4Housing Fife is now an Oakland City Council member and the home is being converted to permanent housing for homeless moms.

But Fife says there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.

"We started digging into what is actually happening and why are our black folks living on the streets disproportionately to their numbers? And not only Oakland, but around the country," Fife said.

Magnolia Street is steeped in racism, from predatory lending to a history of redlining and the fact that only 23% of Oakland is Black but 70% of Oakland's homeless are Black. Some state leaders say systemic change starts with core values outlined in California's constitution. They want to repeal Article 34.

"There is a lot of housing politics that is dark, sordid and racist," said Micah Weinberg, the CEO of the statewide nonprofit organization California Forward.

Article 34 specifically states that no "low rent" public housing shall be developed until voters approve such a project at a general or special election. Voters have to say "yes" before any public housing can be built in their community. This is the only type of housing voters weigh in on.

"Article 34 went into the constitution in 1950 so that people could keep black people and low-income people out of their neighborhood," said State Senator Scott Weiner.

To address California's housing shortage, it is estimated the state needs to build three million more units of housing. Low-income housing is the greatest need, but also has the biggest barriers.

Weiner has been pushing to repeal this language for several years now.

"It's immoral that we make it so hard for people in California to get housing. It's immoral that people are living in their cars and we are allowing that to happen," Weiner said.

Article 34 helps keep the microphone open at public meetings where neighbors worry about property values and fight to maintain single-family zoning. Weinberg says this provision prevents publicly funded projects from being proposed.

ALSO READ: Proposal Inspired By Oakland Moms 4 Housing Targets Vacant Homes To Tackle Crisis

"If you are locked out of different communities, you were locked out of the economic upward mobility that will help you and your family across generations," Weinberg said.

"Basic compliance with Article 34 could cost affordable housing developers between 10 to 80 grand," State Assembly Member Alex Lee said.

That's money developers would have to pay to get it in front of the voters. Lee, the youngest member of the state legislature at 25, says he feels the pain of the housing crisis first-hand and is hoping to help pass this law from his high school bedroom.

"To be honest, the only way I can even live in my own district is because I live at home. I live with my mom," Lee said.

There is no formal statewide campaign against Article 34 and there is broad support in the state legislature to repeal it, but when presented with the opportunity to overturn Article 34, in the past voters have rejected it three times.

Lawmakers hope 2020 has made Californians ready for this change as the pandemic created a space for introspection. The death of George Floyd meant marches, anti-racist book orders and signs in windows that Black Lives Matter. Weiner says if substantial change is to take place it has to start at home.

"Sadly, there are still a lot of people who may have a Black Lives Matter sign in their window, but they don't want low-income housing in their neighborhood," Weiner said.

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