Vote Housing: A Practical Progressive Guide to California’s Nov. 2020 Election

aka OMG, Please Vote Yes on Prop 15

Politics is weird.

If you read the news or scroll through the politics people on your social media feeds, you’d think that 99.9% of what happens in American government happens at the federal level. In just a 10-day period, we had the most disturbing presidential debate in history, a president diagnosed with Covid, a super-spreader event at the White House, and a fly that launched 1,000 memes.

Yet, of the things that directly affect your life — your housing costs, your health, your job prospects, the quality of your neighborhood’s schools, whether local policing keeps you safe or poses a threat to you, etc. — the high drama of Washington affects maybe 50% of that.

In fact, in California, what happens at the local and state level is probably 80% or more of what affects your life, due to the wildfires that are choking our skies with ash and the housing shortage that eats so much of our paychecks.

So for those of us in the non-swing Golden State, your votes for state and local races and ballot measures generally matter a hell of a lot more than most of the things you hear about in the news and on social media. To make matters more complicated, California also allows ballot initiatives at the state, regional, and local levels, which this year will add anywhere from 12 to 22+ additional things for you to vote on in the next few weeks.

This voter guide is an attempt to help folks parse through as much of that as possible, and after a lot of positive feedback from my prior California voter guides (March 2020, November 2018, and June 2018), I’d feel guilty if I didn’t keep it up. I hope you’ll find it helpful.

Why Trust This Guide?

I’m a staunch progressive but a pragmatic one. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries in 2016 and 2020. I expect we’ll have universal healthcare in the US in my lifetime, and I believe the higher taxes some of us will pay to achieve that will be paid back many times over in a stronger, more prosperous, more equitable society. I would’ve been just as happy with Elizabeth Warren winning the presidential primary, but now that the candidate is Joe Biden, I’m cool with him too. If we can put Biden in the White House alongside Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and then kill the filibuster, the next 4 years could lead to more progressive change than we’ve seen in the last 50.

I say all this, because things get more complicated below the national level. In California, Democrats are dominant, holding super-majorities in the legislature and all statewide executive offices. On the more conservative side of the Democratic Party, there are politicians who would probably be Republicans in a different state, but they see which way the wind has been blowing and opted out of being in a permanent minority party. On the left side of politics, there is a substantial portion of activists (and politicians, in some places) who probably agree with me on 95% of national politics, but on state and local issues, they have veered into some very, very poorly reasoned and counterproductive places.

The city of San Francisco is ground zero both for California’s housing crisis AND for this data-denying, reason-defying form of “progressivism.” It’s not a coincidence that those two things are centered in the same place.

If you want more background on why rents and home prices are so absurdly high in California, check out my November 2018 election explainer — Housing Is the Most Important Issue for California Voters, So Learn Up — but suffice it to say, this guide will take what shouldn’t be a controversial stance but sadly is:

“The primary way to solve California’s housing shortage is to build a lot more housing for everyone, of all income levels.”

I hope that’s common sense to you, and if it is, read on for a concise summary of what you’ll be voting on and what votes will do the most to make California a more equitable, healthy, and prosperous place.

Federal Offices

Just do it — even if you were a Bernie die-hard and think the two-party system is terrible. If Biden wins a decisive electoral college and popular vote mandate, that would do a lot to push moderate Dems in Congress to get on board with things we desperately need, like: ending the filibuster, reforming how Supreme Court justices are chosen, passing more aggressive healthcare reform, passing serious climate change legislation, and more.

The thing that actually excites me about Joe Biden is that he represents the exact edge of what’s possible in the Democratic Party. If Joe Biden gets behind something, then that means virtually all Democratic representatives in Congress should be willing to get behind it too. Sure, he says he doesn’t support the “Green New Deal,” but that’s just savvy politics to get Trump-skeptical moderate voters on his side. If we get a Biden presidency and a Democratic House and Senate, we will see a major climate change/green jobs package. It will probably not be everything that AOC would wish for if she had 100% control, but it will be infinitely better than the nothing we will get if Democrats don’t win decisively. Vote Biden.

2020 is the one even-year of the cycle when Californians don’t vote on a senator. If Biden and current Senator Kamala Harris go to the White House, Governor Gavin Newsom will get to appoint Harris’s replacement, and we’ll vote permanently on that replacement in November 2022. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is far to the right of the California electorate and opposes filibuster reform, fended off a serious challenge in 2018, so we are unfortunately stuck with her until 2024.

This is a partisan office, so your ballot will say clearly the party of the candidates. Just vote for the Democrat. If you live somewhere with two Democrats on the ballot, you probably should just vote for the incumbent. I’m not aware of any California House Democrats who deserve to be knocked out (unlike DiFi in the US Senate, as explained above). In San Francisco, there’s technically another Democrat on the ballot challenging Nancy Pelosi, but you should know that that dude is facing pretty serious sexual harassment allegations.

State Offices

We’ll vote on governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, etc. again in 2022.

These races are also partisan, so if you have a Democrat vs. a Republican, just vote for the Democrat. (You can check the candidates’ parties here: Senate, Assembly) Essentially all the non-crazy Republicans have become Democrats in purplish districts at this point, so that means that anyone who is still explicitly a Republican is probably a Trump-ian die-hard. Punish them by making it as lopsided a victory for the Democrat as possible.

If you live in one of the 3 Senate districts or 11 Assembly districts where two Democrats are facing off against one another this year, here’s how I’d recommend you vote:

  • Senate District 11 (San Francisco) — Scott Wiener: Wiener is the single most effective legislator in the state at pushing the envelope on housing issues and taking the crisis we are facing seriously. He works outrageously hard and has been a state and national leader on transportation and LGBTQ issues as well, the latter at great personal cost. You’ll hear “progressive” San Francisco activists make all sorts of accusations against him, but they’re wrong. A California Senate without Scott Wiener would be a much less progressive place.
  • SD 15 (South San Jose) — Dave Cortese: Cortese is the clear progressive choice here. He favors aggressive legislation to deal with the state’s housing crisis, and his opponent, while previously an appointee of President Obama’s to the Federal Election Commission, recently came out against the most important ballot measure this year, Prop 15 (see this tweet). That makes zero sense, and anyone who opposes Prop 15 should never get anywhere near the legislature as a Democrat.
  • SD 33 (South LA / Long Beach) — Lena Gonzalez: Endorsed by YIMBY Action, one of the most important pro-housing organizations in the state, and she’s the incumbent. Just re-elect her.

I don’t know as much about the details of most of these races, so like the Lena Gonzalez race, I’m going off the endorsements from YIMBY Action. We need decisive pro-housing majorities in our legislature in order to defeat localized NIMBY opposition to bills that build more housing, so this should be a serious litmus test in every state legislative race in California. If there’s no YIMBY Action endorsement in a race, then I’m just following the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, for which I’m a delegate.

State Ballot Measures

Here is where it gets juicy. There are 12 statewide ballot measures you get to vote on this year, and as folks who have voted in California before know, it’s not always obvious which ones are good and which ones are bad.

Indeed, the fact that we allow ballot measures at all in this state is probably a bad thing on balance, because it creates policies that are very hard to undo. Most of the time, when a measure is passed at the ballot, the only way to revise it is to pass another ballot measure, a very expensive undertaking. And certain ballot measures create their own special interest groups, such that it is very much worth their while to spend tens of millions of dollars defending their special privileges.

The ballot measure that has contributed more to California’s housing crisis than any other law — 1978’s Prop 13 — is just one such proposition, but we finally have a chance to undo the worst effects of that law. More on that shortly, but here’s how to vote to create a more equitable, sustainable, prosperous state.

LAist has a concise, readable summary of this. This basically continues funding a stem cell research institute in Oakland that was created by voter initiative in 2004, at a time when the George W. Bush administration was implementing a ban on funding stem cell research at the federal level. The initially allocated money is about to run out, so this would extend it, at the cost of $260 million per year for the next 30 years to pay off the $5.5 billion bond.

I was initially a reluctant yes on this, but after reading more about it, I’ve switched to no and ultimately voted that way. The San Jose Mercury News has a pretty thorough thrashing of Prop 14, which basically boils down to: a) funding scientific research should be done at the federal level, not by states, and the original blocker of federal funding for stem cell research no longer exists; b) the board overseeing this money has a number of conflicts of interest that have never been resolved; and c) the debt service on this bond — $2.3 billion over 30 years — is significant, and those dollars would likely be better spent elsewhere. Vote no on Prop 14, even though society funding scientific research is normally a good thing.

This is the single most important ballot measure this year. You should vote yes, and you should tell everyone you know to vote yes. Here’s why:

In the 1970s, home prices were appreciating rapidly in California. As a home’s assessed value went up and up, the absolute amount that a homeowner would have to pay in property taxes each year would likewise go up. This became such an acute issue 45 years ago that folks on fixed incomes, like senior citizens, were at serious risk of losing their homes, because their property taxes ate up more and more of their earnings. To address this, California voters approved Prop 13 in 1978, which capped property taxes at 1% of a home’s assessed value and limited how much the assessed value could increase at 2% per year.

This structure had the effect of protecting senior citizens from losing their homes, since they could rely on their property taxes only going up 2% per year, so long as they stayed in those same homes. But a massive, massive loophole was part of the proposition: commercial and industrial properties ALSO got these tax benefits, even though no one was worried about Disney and Chevron being unable to afford their property taxes.

Exempting large corporations like this from paying market-rate property taxes has had massive distortionary effects on the California economy. Old, legacy businesses have used this loophole to lock in lower cost structures than their startup competitors, decreasing the vibrancy of many industries, and since 1978, California has grossly underfunded public education and local governments, which depend largely on property tax revenue to provide services to residents.

Nowadays, depending on how you calculate it, California ranks about 46th among states in per-pupil K-12 spending. This is in spite of the much higher fixed costs California schools have due to how expensive real estate is here and the resulting higher salaries necessary to have employees that can afford (barely) to stay in the region.

Prop 15 would go a long way towards addressing these debilitating issues. Through a variety of mechanisms, it targets property tax increases towards the largest corporations in the state, and it dedicates the resulting new funds to local governments and schools.

You can look up how much your local school district would stand to gain through this tool created by the California Teachers Association, one of the main sponsors of Prop 15. As one example near me, the Ravenswood City Elementary school district in East Palo Alto, which educates some of the most disadvantaged kids in San Mateo County, would gain $1.9 million annually if Prop 15 passes. That amounts to about $585 additional per student every single year. Over 13 years in the K-12 system, that kind of additional investment will make a huge difference in outcomes for kids and the vitality of our state.

Prop 15 is a slam-dunk yes vote, and the primary opponents are large corporations, who prefer to keep their loopholes, and anti-tax crusaders, who are also voting for Trump. Don’t let them win. Vote yes on Prop 15.

Prop 16 effectively repeals Prop 209 that was passed in 1996 as part of a wave of white, conservative, anti-immigrant sentiment in California. That proposition banned affirmative action in certain sectors amid a period of rapid demographic change: in the mid-1990s, the state was about 52% non-Hispanic white, down from 67% in 1980. That has declined to 37% non-Hispanic white today as the state has continued to become more diverse — and more prosperous on a per capita basis, it should be noted.

Unfortunately, because of the continued existence of Prop 209, that has made certain types of programs for righting historical wrongs based on race difficult to implement (which was the whole, racist point of Prop 209 to begin with). This is especially true for the University of California system, where the Latinx enrollment at their flagship campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles lags behind that group’s representation in the UC system as a whole.

On top of that, Latinx students make up 51% of California high school graduates but comprise only 22% of students who enrolled in the UC system in Fall 2019. Repealing Prop 16 would free our public university systems to implement programs that help make their student bodies better representative of the public, and in the long term, that will make California a more equitable place. Vote yes on Prop 16.

This one’s pretty straight-forward. In California, those convicted of felonies are only allowed to vote after they have been released from prison AND after they have completed their parole period, usually about 3 years. Passing Prop 17 would allow such released prisoners to vote immediately upon finishing their sentences, without waiting for the parole period to be completed.

As a progressive, it’s weird to me that we take away such a fundamental right — the right to vote — from people convicted of crimes anyway, especially given the way that the legal system has been used to target people of color over time. It’s a double whammy: the criminal justice system is racist in its impact, and it reduces the voices of those impacted by that racism as they are incarcerated. (For more on the inherent injustices of our legal system, especially against Black Americans, I highly recommend the documentary “13th” on Netflix, by Ava DuVernay.)

Passing Prop 17 is a small step in the right direction and could help give those recently released from prison a voice in building a more just system.

Prop 18 — Permit 17-year-olds to Vote in Primary and Special Elections if They Will Turn 18 by the Next General Election: YES

This is another good idea that requires a state constitutional amendment to become law. Basically, this would allow 17-year-olds to have a voice in picking primary candidates in the state if they would be allowed to vote in the general election anyway.

As you may know, California has a top two primary system for most state and federal offices, where instead of one candidate from each party getting into the general election, all candidates are in the same primary (sometimes called a “jungle primary”) and the top two get to move onto the general election.

In practice, what this means is that elections in deep red or deep blue districts are often decided at the primary stage. My state senate district, SD 13 on the SF Bay Peninsula, is one such example. In the March 2020 primary, 5 Democrats, 1 Republican, and 1 Libertarian contested the seat that became vacant after incumbent Jerry Hill was term limited out, and one Democrat and one Republican made it to the top two. Because this district voted 76% for the Democrat in 2016, that means it is overwhelmingly likely that the single Democrat in the general election, Josh Becker, will be elected to the state legislature.

However, for young people that turned 18 between March 3rd and November 3rd of 2020, an eight-month period, their votes in the state senate general election won’t mean much. The results of the race were determined back in March.

If Prop 18 passes, 17-year-olds in such a situation would be able to vote in the primary and actually have a shot at influencing the outcome of the race. That’s a good thing unto itself. But it’s also good to let more juniors and seniors get to vote while they are still enrolled in high school. Research shows that voting is a habit, and the earlier we can get young people habituated to voting every 2 years, the more likely they will become lifelong voters. Vote yes on the very appropriately numbered Prop 18.

This proposition is a second take (this year) on reforming the infamous 1978 Prop 13 that has underfunded California public schools for several generations. This one is basically a play by the realtors associations to gin up more home sales by tweaking the property tax system in two ways:

  1. Homeowners who are 55 or older, disabled, or lost their homes to a wildfire would be able to take their artificially low Prop 13 property tax assessment with them to any new home in California.
  2. Children who inherit a home from their parents would have to make it their primary residence in order to preserve its artificially low Prop 13 assessment. They can’t just inherit it and rent it out while keeping the Prop 13 benefits.

On balance, these two changes generate net positive tax revenue, some of which would go to fighting wildfires and some of which would go to schools and local governments. Basically, change #1 costs the state money, and change #2 makes the state money. Both, of course, lead to more real estate transactions, which is why the realtors are spending $46 million to get this thing passed.

Closing the loophole where children can inherit a home and just rent it out while benefiting from Prop 13 is definitely a good thing. The LA Times uncovered an infamous case of this where actor Jeff Bridges and his siblings inherited a Malibu home from their parents and turned around to rent it out for nearly $16,000 per month. Meanwhile, they pay property taxes based on an assessment from 1975.

Cases like that are an utter distortion of the popular sentiment that powered the original Prop 13 to victory. Voters wanted to keep senior citizens in their homes, not establish a tax loophole for the landed gentry. Closing it is a good idea, and while the property tax assessment transfer provisions are probably a little looser than ideal, the fact that this is on-net a revenue generator for the state is a good thing.

This proposition rolls back some of the reforms to the criminal justice system passed at the ballot over the last decade. The LAist summary covers some of the details, but suffice it to say, this prop is NOT what our system needs right now, as society comes to a growing reckoning with the way the we’ve used the justice system to enforce segregation and brutalize Black and Brown communities. Vote no on Prop 20.

In the debate over how to address California’s crushing housing crisis, the fault lines often seem to come down to a debate of expanding rent control vs. increasing the housing supply. Rent control advocates worry that new construction of housing will drive displacement of long-time residents, especially when those new homes are in centrally-located areas near jobs and transit that have historically been neighborhoods of color (because white people preferred to flee to the car-centric suburbs). On the pro-supply side, some advocates worry that housing is difficult enough to build in California, and if cities enact stricter rent control, that will further kill the incentive to build housing.

The fact is, California needs BOTH stronger renter protections and dramatically more housing supply. Prop 21 lets cities that want to protect working-class neighborhoods of color do so with stronger protections — a good thing — and as those protections grow in strength, we can feel more confident that upzoning and new housing supply will help address the housing shortage without unintended side effects on vulnerable residents.

A strong coalition of anti-gentrification advocates and housing supply advocates would be an unstoppable force in many California cities and the state legislature. Some places, like Mountain View, are already seeing this in action, where they both have strong renter protections AND are rapidly building lots of homes. That’s the future, and a yes vote on Prop 21 will get it here faster.

(If you are someone who is naturally a rent control skeptic, Alfred Twu has a nice graphic summary:

Source: @alfred_twu on Twitter

Alfred also wrote a more in-depth analysis and explanation of Prop 21 here.)

Prop 22 attempts to undo a 2019 bill passed by the California legislature, which tightened the rules on what kind of workers companies could treat as independent contractors, not employees. If workers perform duties that are essential to the operation of a business — such as driving customers for Uber or delivering food for DoorDash — they must be considered employees and given benefits by the companies. The app-based gig economy companies would obviously prefer to have as little regulation as possible on their business model and wrote Prop 22 as an attempt to override the state legislature.

In the long term, we probably need three classes of employees in the US: full-time or almost full-time employees with pre-determined schedules, full-time or almost full-time employees with flexible schedules, and part-time workers. The first two categories should qualify for the same full benefits, and the third category should be allowed to have the very flexible schedules they prefer.

If someone wants to pick up 5-10 hours a week driving for Uber to make some extra cash, go for it. But for the workers who treat Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and the like as full-time jobs — often because there aren’t good other options where they live — they should be treated like the full-time employees they are.

This stuff is complicated, and we’ll probably learn more and more over time about the right balance for workers between benefits and schedule flexibility. All that is even MORE reason we shouldn’t be legislating this stuff at the ballot box. If Prop 22 passes, then we’re stuck with the rules that Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and InstaCart write for themselves.

Those companies are also by far the biggest spenders on this year’s election in the state:

Source: @alfred_twu on Twitter (again)

This is a perversion of democracy. The gig economy companies should negotiate with the legislature for changes if they think AB 5 will kill their business (it won’t), not take an end-run around it.

Vote no on Prop 22 and tell everyone else you know to vote no as well.

This is yet another issue that shouldn’t be decided at the ballot box. It’s basically a proxy war between the dialysis corporations (DaVita and Fresenius, principally) and a labor union that is trying to organize dialysis workers. The LAist explainer is fine if you want to read the details, but this kind of policy just shouldn’t be decided by voters. Vote no on Prop 23.

Consumer privacy is a complicated issue. Tech is changing constantly. The California legislature has already shown their willingness to strengthen consumer privacy laws through a major bill passed in 2018.

All these are reasons why such issues should be handled through the normal legislative process and NOT through a ballot measure. That way, if something goes awry with the rules in their implementation, the legislature can pass fixes to smooth things out. If Prop 24 screws something up that all sides agree is bad, the only way to fix it is to pass another ballot measure.

Vote no on Prop 24.

This one’s a little weird: Basically, the California legislature passed a bill in 2018, SB 10, that eliminated cash bail in the state. That was a good thing, because it’s a grossly unjust system that would let one person get out of jail because they could afford bail and let another languish there waiting for trial because they couldn’t. Cash bail simply magnifies the other inequities of the criminal justice system.

However, the bail bond companies came together and gathered enough signatures to put SB 10 to a referendum. So a yes vote upholds SB 10, and a no vote strikes it down.

SB 10 isn’t perfect according to most analyses, but it’s better than the status quo AND it would drive a stake through the heart of bail bond companies in California, which will make future attempts at criminal justice reform easier. Vote yes on Prop 25.

Bay Area Regional Measures

This is a critical measure to pass to keep the Caltrain system alive. It adds a 1/8-cent sales tax — i.e., an additional penny on an $8 sandwich — that will bring a permanent funding source to the Caltrain system that, in non-pandemic times, is critical infrastructure that 10,000s of Bay Area residents rely on each day. On top of that, with the money from Measure RR, the system will invest more heavily in subsidies for low-income riders, to make it easier for them to access the trains that can be, admittedly, a little pricey.

Measure RR is an easy yes, and the only people against it are anti-tax crusaders, misguided “progressives” who don’t understand what’s at stake here, or NIMBYs who want to kill economic growth on the Caltrain corridor. Vote yes on Measure RR.

Other Regional Measures and Local Measures

For the most part, you’ll have to look to local sources on these. In general, here’s how you should approach such things:

  • Do they invest heavily in public transit? Vote yes. Almost any tax increase is worth it to strengthen mass transit in California, given how traffic-choked our streets are and the threat of climate change. If we were truly rational, we’d have NYC-style subways running throughout our largest cities, with high-frequency, European-style rail connecting larger regions. But we’re not rational, and too many of these common-sense measures are forced to go to the ballot for approval.
  • If it’s not public transit (and even if it is), look to local newspapers and policy analysts to understand what’s good and bad. Odds are that regional measures are probably good, because rarely do self-serving interest groups have a reason to put forth such measures (unlike the state level where they do it all the time).
  • Similarly, most local measures put up by city governments or school boards are probably good too. They usually try to raise money to stay afloat, since the 1978 Prop 13 has strangled their main source of revenue: property taxes. Vote yes on such measures unless you have a really good reason not to.
  • That said, some larger cities put a LOT of things on the ballot, often because city leaders are afraid to make decisions for themselves and want voters to rubber-stamp them or because arcane city rules require certain types of things to be put before voters. San Francisco is one such place, and shit is complicated there. The Tech Workers Voter Guide is a good place to start if you live there. (And for the love of all that is holy, do not read the “pissed off” voter guide that is sometimes passed around. It’s horrible and written by political machine insiders who don’t believe the housing crisis requires building more housing.) Outside of San Francisco, look for good progressive voters guides written by people who believe building more housing is important.
  • Lastly, local measures put up by citizens’ groups can sometimes/often be bad. Local NIMBYs — short-hand for residents who say “not in my backyard” when it comes to new housing — will sometimes organize to block housing development at the ballot box, an especially immoral act in the middle of a housing shortage. In San Mateo, for instance, a group of local NIMBYs collected signatures to put Measure Y on the ballot, which extends onerous height and density limits that have limited housing production in the city for 30 years. Vote no on Measure Y if you happen to live in San Mateo, and study other local measures carefully to make sure you are not deepening exclusion and segregation in your city.

That’s it! I swore I would write a shorter voter guide this time, but these fucking props, man…

If you have any feedback on the guide, you can find me on Twitter @mldunham. Thanks for reading!

Former 5th grade math teacher interested in how to make the Peninsula a more equitable place.