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Op-Ed: Prop 21 Threatens African American Generational Wealth

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Diane Robertson, attorney and small property owner 

The primary path to the middle class for American families is through property ownership. However, for many African Americans, Latinos and other minorities, the opportunity has been out of reach because of discriminatory housing laws and economic inequality.

It’s alarming that a measure on the November ballot would make this lack of access worse, and simultaneously threaten relatively recent gains made by others in these groups. Proposition 21 would make it more difficult to build the affordable housing we need, and make it harder to enter the middle class through home ownership — the central pillar of the American Dream.

As we come to grips with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, those of us who have spent years saving and sacrificing to purchase a house or condo find our investment and financial security in jeopardy. The failure of our leaders to pass protections for small landlords like me endangers our livelihoods, and puts our tenants at risk.

Proposition 21 would exacerbate the already dire situation facing mom and pop property owners, and could hasten foreclosure and short sales of our properties. Like the last housing crisis, this economic upheaval will lead to large corporate landlords and hedge funds swooping in to purchase these properties at distressed prices, devastating small landlords and forcing tenants out of their homes.

Fewer rental properties on the market and more corporate ownership of California housing will not only hurt independent property owners, it will hurt tenants as well. According to the group Tenants Together, approximately 200,000 tenants were displaced from their homes in California during the housing crash that began in 2008.

We must protect small property owners who, in contrast to corporate landlords, often are natural affordable housing providers, operate on small margins, give applicants a chance if they don’t meet all of the rental qualifications, and help maintain the integrity of a community. 

As the COVID-19 crisis hit, a neighbor and I talked about the impact it could have on landlords and tenants. We reached out to a handful of other independent landlords of color to share information and ideas. From there, the Coalition of Small Rental Property Owners was born and has been growing ever since. Our goal is to ensure that our voice is not drowned out in the fight between tenants’ groups and large property owners.

Small landlords are an integral part of communities like mine in South Los Angeles.  I have been fortunate enough to save and invest in a duplex and fourplex here. I have made it a point to be flexible with my tenants when needed. I have a personal relationship with my tenants. I understand that having stable tenants is good for my bottom line and my community.

I want to see our community thrive, and the door to property ownership open up for African American and Latino families who desire it, but for whom this dream remains deferred because of bad public policy like Proposition 21. California’s housing market was in crisis before COVID-19, due in large part to a failure to build enough supply to meet demand, and how costly and difficult it is to build new housing in our state.  These factors have caused prices to soar, making it that much harder for the average family to buy property.

We cannot slam the door to the middle class on those who are working to get ahead. Proposition 21 will diminish opportunities to own property for people who look like me, and will worsen our problems of racial and economic inequality.

The state of California is facing a new economic challenge, and families across our state are struggling. What we need most is new investment in our housing market, not an extreme measure like Proposition 21 that will further destabilize it.


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