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A Deep Dive Into Oakland's Measure Q Article 34 Authorization

by Office of Carroll Fife
You might be wondering, why is there a ballot measure asking Oakland voters to authorize low-rent housing units? Why is this required, what will it do and what is this Article 34?
Let’s Start By Defining Article 34

Article 34 is a little known provision in the California Constitution that requires any public body, including the City of Oakland, to get voter approval before it can fund housing for low-income residents. Some of the exact language in the article is:

“No low rent housing project shall hereafter be developed, constructed, or acquired in any manner by any state public body until, a majority of the qualified electors… approve such project”

The California Constitution is the only constitution in the United States with this statute. No other state constitution requires voter approval for this particular type of housing.

Notice how the article also only requires a vote for “low-rent” housing, not median or moderate income. Some of you might already be catching on about who this article is meant to benefit and who it doesn’t. Let’s dig into the history of this article and it will become even more apparent.

A Brief History Of Public Housing — Going From White to Black

Article 34 was added to the California Constitution in 1950 and the decades leading up to its passing saw some big shifts in housing in America. The Great Depression of the 1930s saw mass unemployment and foreclosures. In order to support Americans during those desperate times, the federal government became involved, for the first time, in creating low-rent housing. In 1937, they started the United States Housing Authority and a year later, the Oakland Housing Authority was also formed.

Many subsidized low-rent housing projects were initially built for white families while intentionally excluding Black families. The Los Angeles Housing Authority first built public housing in white neighborhoods and Black families, who otherwise would have been eligible, remained homeless while units set aside for whites remained vacant. Only after early civil rights organizing did Black families gain access to public housing.

White residents eventually moved out of public housing with the aid of other New Deal programs and policies. There were federally insured mortgages that subsidized home purchases for white residents, including paying the mortgage if the owner defaulted. There were also government-guaranteed bank loans to developers so long as the subdivisions were white-only.

Black families on the other hand, paid higher rents in the private market than their white counterparts as landlords took advantage of the limited housing availability due to racial restrictions. Black families were also either excluded from opportunities to take out mortgages or had to pay steep interest rates and large down payments in order to do so. It is unsurprising that over the decades, public housing became increasingly synonymous with Black housing.

In the early 1950s, 43% of the 15,000 residents in Oakland’s permanent and temporary public housing projects were Black; one out of every eight Black residents in the city (Hella Town, p234). Ten years later, very few white residents lived in the increasingly underfunded projects (p234).

Article 34 — A Reactionary Measure to Desegregation

With these dynamics in the background, the American Housing Act of 1949 came along. The American Housing Act expanded the scope of housing and public works projects by the federal government and explicitly banned racial segregation in public housing. All public housing developments had to be open to all, meaning that local white residents, as well as white residents within the projects themselves, could no longer lobby to keep Black families out of their neighborhoods.

There is wide consensus that Article 34 arose as a racist and classist reaction to the American Housing Act of 1949. Predominantly white voters sought to find other ways to keep Black people, as well as low-income people, out of their neighborhoods.

The campaign for Article 34 is said to have been sparked by events earlier in 1950 when residents in Eureka, CA tried to block a public housing project from being developed. They ultimately lost the case in the state Supreme Court, however the California Real Estate Association, now known as the California Association of Realtors, took notice and led the charge to place Article 34 on the November 1950 ballot.

The campaign played on the fears that public housing could result in projects with low-income, nonwhite residents being placed in white areas, resulting in the integration of the neighborhoods. Related to that, proponents played on fears that low-income projects would hurt the property values of a community generally but, in particular, if such projects contained nonwhite residents. The other argument used was against the government spending of taxpayer dollars on what were called ‘socialist’ programs.

By making public housing projects harder to build, the white electorate were effectively voting to keep their neighborhoods segregated. While the ballot initiative for Article 34 passed, it was by fewer than 50,000 votes and yet it continues to affect us today.

The Long Lasting Impact of Article 34

The LA Times: A dark side to the California dream: How the state Constitution makes affordable housing hard to build
by Liam Dillon

LA Times: Why it’s been so hard to kill Article 34, California’s ‘racist’ barrier to affordable housing
by Liam Dillon

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
by Richard Rothstein

Hella Town: Oakland's History of Development and Disruption
by Mitchell Schwarzer. Chapter: Housing Injustice
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