Both take aim at the condemnation of property for private use. One would also phase out rent control.

By Patrick McGreevy

Cruz Baca Sembello feels under siege by City Hall, in danger of losing the modest Baldwin Park home that she and her parents have lived in for decades.

The San Gabriel Valley city is threatening to use its powers of eminent domain to force the sale of the home, with plans to raze it and several others to make way for a large shopping center.

“We understand that Baldwin Park needs revitalization, but it isn’t fair that big business and the mayor and City Council can just bulldoze someone’s home for a mall and we don’t have any alternatives,” she said.

Sembello’s story is cited by property rights activists as an example of why state voters should restrict eminent domain powers in California. But what began as a campaign to prevent the taking of homes for private development has turned into a bitter political dispute. Now state voters are being asked to choose between two competing initiatives on the June 3 ballot.

One measure, Proposition 98, has drawn opposition from tenant groups because it would also phase out rent control in California. Placed on the ballot by groups representing taxpayers, property owners and farmers, that measure would broadly prohibit the taking of private property — including farmland and commercial sites — for private use.

The other initiative, Proposition 99, was put on the ballot by associations representing cities, counties and redevelopment agencies. It is limited to barring the taking of homes for private development.

The multimillion-dollar campaigns for and against Propositions 98 and 99 are among the highest-profile political contests on a ballot that also features primary contests for dozens of congressional posts, state Senate and Assembly seats and local ballot measures aimed at boosting funding for school districts.

The propositions “are on the ballot just as the mortgage meltdown is drawing attention to the broader issue of housing,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Some former homeowners are joining the ranks of renters, and they might think twice about a proposal that would end rent control.”

A national battle over eminent domain has been raging since a 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court against Susette Kelo, a Connecticut woman who was fighting government efforts to take her small house for a redevelopment project. The court upheld the right of governments to take homes for commercial development.

The idea that people can be forced from their homes so profit-seeking developers can build shopping malls outrages Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. His group is one of the sponsors of Proposition 98.

A constitutional amendment that bars state and local governments “from condemning or damaging private property for private uses,” the measure would allow the use of eminent domain solely to take property for public uses, such as schools, roads and government buildings.

“It provides protection for all property owners in situations where the government takes property from one person and gives it to another,” Coupal said.

He said eliminating rent control is a natural extension of that: “You don’t get investors investing in new housing in a regulated market.”

Proposition 98 has attracted opposition from an unusual alliance that includes the League of California Cities, the California Redevelopment Assn. and tenant rights advocates.

The tenant groups — including the Coalition to Protect California Renters — object to the section of the measure that would phase out rent control as subject apartments and mobile homes are vacated.

Dean Preston, the coalition’s co-chairman, said Proposition 98 supporters are emphasizing the eminent domain restrictions because they are popular.

“Proposition 98 is a deceptive ballot measure that directly attacks renters,” Preston said.

Tenant activists have joined the cities and redevelopment agencies in supporting Proposition 99, which would ban the use of eminent domain against houses and condominiums — but not all private property — if the purpose is to sell it to a company for private use such as building a shopping center.

As allowed by the state Constitution, Proposition 99 contains language that says it alone will become law if it passes and receives more votes than Proposition 98, even if the latter measure is also approved.

So far, the tenant groups and associations representing cities and redevelopment agencies have been able to raise $6.4 million to oppose Proposition 98 and support Proposition 99, compared with the $3.5 million raised by the Jarvis association and the landlord groups.

Baca Sembello, a 59-year-old education consultant, supports Proposition 98. She says the measure could spare others from the painful dilemma faced by about 100 residential property owners in Baldwin Park’s redevelopment area, including her parents, Ralph, 82, and Alice, 80.

The city redevelopment agency has sent the Bacas a letter offering about $300,000 for the three-quarters of an acre that includes their three-bedroom home.

Baca Sembello said the agency has threatened to use its eminent domain powers to take the house, which she believes would fetch at least $500,000 even in the depressed real estate market.

But the Bacas don’t want to move. They have deep ties to the area; the Baldwin Park Metrolink station is named for Baca Sembello’s grandfather.

Baca Sembello opposes Proposition 99. She said it has loopholes, including a 180-day delay in taking effect that she believes would let redevelopment agencies complete a flurry of condemnations.

Like the Baca family, Janelle Longwell, a South Los Angeles resident, also feels under siege. But she is opposed to Proposition 98 because it would phase out rent control.

Longwell, who is dependent on a small disability check each month because she has epilepsy, says her landlord is trying to terminate the government subsidy on her rent but is prevented from doing so by rent control.

“I would never be able to pay rent here if it was at the normal rate,” Longwell said.

Baldwin Park Mayor Pro Tem Anthony Bejarano opposes both propositions, saying they would hinder efforts to attract economic development to distressed areas.

“By taking away eminent domain in such a knee-jerk way, people don’t realize its impact on poorer communities like mine that don’t have the money to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” said Bejarano, an attorney. Such places “need eminent domain to attract developers,” he said.

He said neither measure takes into account that California’s eminent domain laws have many protections. Unlike many states, California requires a finding of blight before allowing condemnation of a property for economic development. And a property owner has the right to a second appraisal, at redevelopment agency expense.

“What happened in Connecticut could never happen in California,” Bejarano said.

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