Proposed CA Constitutional Amendment Could Unlock Billions for Housing

In 2018, commanding majorities in San Jose (64%), Santa Rosa (62%) and Santa Cruz County (just over 55%) turned out to back housing bonds worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last November, 59% of voters in Berkeley wanted to give the city permission to borrow $650 million to fund affordable housing. In 2020, 58% of San Diego voters supported a $900 million housing bond.

All five measures failed.

The California constitution doesn’t make it easy for local governments to issue IOUs. Not only are most types of municipal and county borrowing plans required to go before the electorate, once on the ballot they also have to win support from at least two-thirds of the voters to pass.

Now, as state lawmakers scramble to put a lid on ever-increasing housing costs, a persistent homelessness crisis and growing public ire over both, a coalition of housing developers, unions, local governments and pro-housing groups want to lower that electoral bar for bonds and taxes that fund affordable housing and a wide array of public infrastructure projects.

The new proposed threshold: 55%. Had that standard been in place in 2018, Berkeley, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz County would have been granted the power to borrow a total of $2.26 billion.

Spearheading the effort to amend the state constitution is Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry — and not for the first time. The Davis Democrat has introduced a version of the bill every session since joining the Legislature in 2017. It’s never made it out of the Assembly.

But proponents think this year could be different. The Assembly’s new speaker, Robert Rivas, has named housing a top priority and has shown an early willingness to push his preferred housing bills, even over the objections of powerful committee chairpersons. Rivas is a co-author of Aguiar-Curry’s bill, along with roughly half the Assembly.

Aguiar-Curry may also have a bit more negotiating weight to throw around this time, too. Rivas named her speaker pro tem, his second in command, upon assuming the leadership role this summer.

Meanwhile, public concern about housing has not gone away.

If the proposed constitutional amendment makes it through the Legislature, where it would require (what else?) two-thirds of the vote to pass, it would then go before voters statewide on the November 2024 ballot.

It would be in good company. Alongside initiatives and referenda proposed by private citizens and interest groups, the Legislature is considering a handful of other proposed constitutional changes and as many as 10 statewide bonds, including a $10 billion affordable housing measure.

Aguiar-Curry, who used to be the mayor of semi-rural town of Winters, said her measure may help cure some of the defects she sees with those colossal statewide bonds that often most benefit bigger cities.

“When you pass some of these big time bonds, we don’t see the money,” she said in an interview. “Every community has different needs, but for a lot of us in rural communities, it’s hard to get bonds passed.”

Making it easier for local governments to raise funds for affordable housing will also make it easier for those governments to compete for matching state and federal cash, said Abram Diaz, policy director for the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, which supports the amendment.

“If we’re gonna do these big statewide efforts, ensuring the locals also do their piece and have the tools they need to meet us halfway is really important,” he said.

Many of the state’s business groups and the California Association of Realtors oppose the measure, reluctant to take any steps that would make it easier for local governments to hike taxes or run up their debts. Most bonds issued by local governments are paid out of increased property taxes.

For many defenders of California’s long-time restrictions on local taxation — namely, Proposition 13 from 1978 — Aguiar-Curry’s measure represents a fiscal Pandora’s box.

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Newport Beach Assemblymember Diane Dixon, a Republican, at a recent Assembly hearing. “There are always attempts to undo Prop. 13 and the two-thirds vote, and it’s just a pincer attack.”

Learning from schools

The space between 55% and two-thirds of the vote is where many ballot measures go to die.

In 2022, cities, counties, schools and special districts put a total of 59 revenue-raisers requiring two-thirds of the vote to pass on local ballots across California, according to data compiled by local government fiscal analyst Michael Coleman. Only 29 of those measures cleared that threshold. Of the 30 that failed, 16 received more than 55% of the vote.

“Why should one-third of the local voters have the power to overrule fiscal decisions in your community?” Aguiar-Curry said.

That’s been a major source of fiscal frustration for cities and counties. But for the last two decades, school districts have been the exception. Thanks to Proposition 39, a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2000, local school bond measures only need to hit a 55% cut off to pass, so long as they’re used to fund facility construction and upgrades and don’t exceed a certain amount.

That’s been “a real game changer for schools,” said Coleman.

You can see that in the election results. Over the last two decades, local governments have turned to the voters more than 5,000 times, begging permission to raise taxes or borrow money, according to Coleman’s database.

Since 2001, city and county bond and tax measures that have been required to get two-thirds of the vote have succeeded just more than half the time. School bonds with a 55% threshold have cleared that requirement 80% of the time.

No surprise, then, that affordable housing developers want in on some of that special treatment.

So, too, do organizations representing firefighters, librarians and school employees, public sector workers and construction unions. Alongside affordable housing projects, Aguiar-Curry’s proposal would lower the voter requirement for bonds and taxes that fund all manner of “public infrastructure” projects, including road, highway and transit improvements; water and flood control upgrades; hospital, police station and library construction; and the purchase of firefighting equipment.

And going further than Prop. 39, Aguiar-Curry’s measure sets no limits on the amount of borrowing. Nor is it just restricted to bonds, which are frequently paid back through property tax increases, but would free local governments to propose new parcel tax increases and sales tax hikes.

Opponents of the measure, led by the nonprofit California Taxpayers Association, have seized on that final detail.

“The taxes this measure would make it easier to pass are regressive,” said Peter Blocker, the organization’s lobbyist, at the recent hearing. “And while one of the goals of the measure is to make it easier to raise revenue for housing, the two taxes this measure applies to — sales taxes and parcel taxes — are both taxes that make housing less affordable.”

Tacking on these other areas of infrastructure spending and giving local governments more financial flexibility to use the measure has helped Aguiar-Curry build a coalition. Proponents insist it’s also sensible policy.

“This thought that we can do this for housing and not infrastructure doesn’t work,” said Assemblymember Lori Wilson, a Suisun City Democrat, at the hearing. “You can’t build housing without infrastructure.”

Proponents also insist, over the objections of anti-tax advocates, that the measure would do nothing to directly increase debt or raise taxes. If voters pass the measure in 2024, it would simply provide local governments with new tools to combat the housing crisis.

But voters could put those tools to work immediately in some parts of the state.

As currently written, the Aguiar-Curry amendment would apply to any local revenue-raiser passed “on or after” the amendment itself is passed — meaning, to any other measure also on the November 2024 ballot.

That’s a pertinent detail for voters across the Bay Area, who are likely to be presented with a regional affordable housing bond as large as $20 billion next November. If Aguiar-Curry’s measure makes the ballot, too, that would give millions of Northern California voters the opportunity not only to vote on the largest housing-related IOU in recent California memory, but also on a provision to ease its passage.

“If this passes in November, the lower threshold applicability will apply to other housing bonds that are also on the ballot so that they can really harness this new tool,” said Diaz with the Non-Profit Housing Association. “We don’t have a day to waste as we try to address the homeless crisis.”

Ben Christopher is a reporter with CalMatters.


  1. And repealing Proposition 13 as the envious, resentful over-age children want only unleashes government greed even more and worse than why Proposition 13 exists.

  2. Already spent billions on housing development/homelessness and affordability hasn’t gotten better. To relate the high-prices in housing to simply a “lack of housing” is absurd. The root cause of the affordability issue is the concentration of extremely high-paying jobs in one state/area – particularly the Bay Area/LA – and it is made worse by the lack of housing. But, the root cause is NOT a lack of housing.

    Think logically. If a small town in Ohio has 200 families, and only 100 homes to sell – and the average household income is $45,000 per year – then those 100 homes could NOT sell for $1.4 million, like in San Jose. They would still remain affordable for those households. Similar to rent levels – the 100 families that don’t get the $190,000 home to purchase – won’t be competing with households earning $400,000+ per year for rentals – therefore rent levels may increase, but nowhere near Bay Area.

    Now, if that same town in Ohio built giant Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel, Cisco, Nvidia (list goes on for a long time) campuses – then the existing $45,000/year households are competing with thousands of high paid tech workers – which would then make every home less affordable. Now, the 100 households who purchased property would see their investments skyrocket – but the other 100 from that Ohio town renting would see their dream of buying a home disappear – and some big rent increases to make room for the tech workers.

    That is the story of the Bay Area. Rent and home purchases would be cheaper if this wasn’t the “capital of silicon valley.” So, you’re just developing more homes that will be too expensive for the lower and middle class – and the only thing that makes this area more affordable is spreading out high paying tech jobs to other regions, and the pandemic started that process. Then, the question is, since CA depended on high earners so much to subsidize everything – how do they fill that revenue gap?

    The lack of foresight and understanding of issues for leaders in CA is widespread. They create “solutions” that cost a fortune, and make the issues worse.

    The fact that a rich household, or high-earning household is willing to pay $2 million for a 1200 sq ft single family home is the root cause.

  3. Officially “Affordable” and especially lower-income group housing that residents can afford from what is out of pocket directly for it will need government involvement and a good deal of subsidies. Which developers and non-profits would benefit from this?

  4. Don’t be fooled This is a YIMBY backed constitutional amendment to “end run” prop 13 and raise “special parcel taxes ” on single family homeowners for the purpose of securing municipal bonds (which are loans which the single family homeowners will be accessed to pay as the bonds become due and the bond measure proposed for the 2024 ballot is in the 5-10 billion dollar range) which will be used to “in fill” the single family neighborhoods with “ministerial rights” developments of multi-story (currently 4 stores are allowed in SJC on single family lots and no parking is required) 4-plexes and 6 to 8-plexs of multi-family dwellings. The purpose of the “infill objectives” is to render extinct single family neighborhoods because the YIMBY’s (financed through dark money form developers and NGO’s which are non-profits who do not have to reveal the source of their funds and YIMBY refuses to do so) because the neighborhoods are “bastions of white privilege racist communities”. Their words – not mine.
    So, if you want Granny put out of her home which she worked all her career to pay off and live with assurance of never being unsheltered and to pass down a family legacy to the children who earned it through sweat equity – “not generation wealth falling from the sky” – then vote for this developer / doner class gift. The developers our making billion and paying no taxes to build massive high rises with public funds (Measure E in SJC) and then have the tax payer pay the rents for the low income people who will live in this public housing rent free, utility free with free transportation for the next 55 years. Only single family homeowner will pay. Not commercial property owners, not corporate entity’s- only single family homeowners!! The population of SJC has shrunk dramatically and the state’s own projections for growth in California, into the next decade, predicts that the population will continue to decline precipitously. The state own estimates say will loose over 2 million resident in the coming 5 years and there will be a consistent decline in population through out the end of the decade. People don’t want to live here anymore. Taxes, blight, vagrants, drug use on our streets and byways and the persistent drum beat of the march toward a Marxist agenda by the city council and city staff make this city unbearable. Time to wake up people. If you want to stop the destruction of our lifestyle and communities and fight back the homeless taking over our neighborhoods go to and join the only constitutional amendment movement worthy of your vote next November.
    Observation; where is the legislation/drive to educated the unskilled immigrant work force here in our city/county/state? Why are the labor unions not opening up training on a massive scale to end wage disparities? Why are the community college not expanding nursing , trade skills instruction etc. ? The great equalizer is education and we need to upgrade skills and stop pandering to the leftist who want to destroy the character and economic opportunities this country has to offer.

  5. YIMBYs often are slimy as well as multi-unit housing obsessed, want Granny and others thrown out due to ageism in addition to wanting as a number of local government employees do to see turnover of homes to re-assess and raise taxes on them, or see some converted to mid-rise apartments, or with ADUs or second homes without quality, or oversized replacement homes like those by some households, with even high-rises a possibility among the truly deranged, where they don’t belong.

    And, like urban fantasists, they want OTHERS forced into this alternative, poor housing and living.

    It’s worth it to them to be dealing with the non-profits and governments acquiring housing (governments, to pay future pensions or just to speculate or invest) to see more “progress.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some YIMBY and other activist group leaders have related financial interests.

    Look where, and replacing what, in this example, a remarkable high-rise project is sought, and see the YIMBY support here, on their own site and on other, more recent articles, as with earlier other articles. They show support for this and loathing (alien, toxic as all too often) for low-rise and for Sunset(!) and the best living in the country post-war.

    That the main people with the project are a Putin Pal and a guy who just formed a development firm and seems likely to exploit the Builder’s Remedy in the state, it’s befitting YIMBYs would support it.

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