Eminent domain has become big business -- for the ballot measure industry. Californians rejected an initiative two years ago that purported to protect property owners from government land grabs, but on closer inspection turned out to be an attempt to sweep away the state’s environmental protection and zoning laws. Now we have another initiative that masquerades as a simple correction to the notorious Kelo ruling, but really carries the long-standing agenda of interests that want to extinguish rent control and block water and air quality laws.
With the ill-considered Proposition 98, property rights advocates once again have undermined themselves and poorly served homeowners, businesspeople and real estate investors by overreaching. It would have been so easy to give Californians what they need: assurance that no city, county, other local government or the state can condemn property, evict the owner and turn the land over to a developer who donated to elected officials and then convinced them that he could make the plot prettier and more productive.
That kind of assurance is needed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo vs. New London, upholding a Connecticut city’s decision to give the plaintiff’s property to the developer of a commercial project. Such takings of private homes are rare in California, but owners should not have to fear them.
There was, in fact, a real opportunity to craft a good law in the Capitol, exactly where that sort of work is supposed to get done. Lawmakers were negotiating a constitutional amendment that would have blocked forced private-to-private transfer of homes. It didn’t go far enough, but it was a start, and talks with property rights advocates were proceeding.
But landlords detected a chance to use the fear of eminent domain abuse for their own purposes. They poured several million dollars into getting advocates to drop the legislative approach and go to the ballot with an initiative that quietly targets the rent control laws in about 100 California cities, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.
You wouldn’t know from reading the ballot title and summary that Proposition 98 is an anti-rent-control measure, but that’s become the primary focus of its financial backers, the vast majority of whom are landlords and rental property management companies. One of them is connected to The Times. Sam Zell is chairman and CEO of Tribune Co., which owns The Times; he also chairs Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc., which donated $50,000 to Proposition 98. The company owns 27 mobile home parks in California, many of them subject to rent control.
If Proposition 98 becomes law, rent controlled units would become permanently market rate when the current tenants leave. In Los Angeles, that would affect 626,600 apartments and other rental units.
Serious debate is due on rent control. Does it in fact keep housing affordable, or does it drive up the price by restricting the supply? Is it the renter’s version of Proposition 13, keeping residential neighborhoods stable and housing costs predictable by limiting annual increases? Or does it unfairly transfer to private landowners the public responsibility to provide affordable housing?
But these questions are best answered by voters in each city that currently has rent control laws. Statewide abolition of rent control must not sneak its way onto the books as a hidden addendum to an ostensible eminent domain reform. Including it in Proposition 98 is cynical and devious -- and reason enough to reject the measure.
Even without the rent control component, the initiative reaches beyond public taking of private land for private gain. By barring the transfer of any economic benefit “to one or more private persons at the expense of the private owner,” Proposition 98 crosses into the territory rejected by voters in 2006. It could open the door to lawsuits whenever a government agency zones in such a way that it raises the value of some properties and reduces the potential for others. That could jeopardize efforts to create open space or protect water quality.
Once Proposition 98 took its present form, backers of a less-sweeping initiative went to the ballot as well, leaving voters with two measures to deal with.
The problems with Proposition 99 are that it attempts to address a complex topic with the blunt instrument of the initiative process, and that it achieves too little. Homeowners who live in the property they own would be protected, and that’s a step forward. Despite assertions to the contrary by opponents, cities couldn’t wipe away a home’s coverage simply by rezoning the area. But small-business owners are even more vulnerable to a city council’s confiscatory redevelopment schemes than are homeowners. They too deserve protection, and Proposition 99 doesn’t provide it.
Voters should take the opportunity to protect homeowners, but that only starts the job. Lawmakers have to do the rest, with legislation that allows eminent domain to move forward only for legitimate public purposes. This time, perhaps property rights advocates will proceed in good faith and avoid yet another bait-and-switch initiative.
In the meantime, The Times urges a no vote on Proposition 98 and a yes vote on Proposition 99.
For previous Times endorsements in the June 3 election, visit