The Jordan Court senior housing project in North Berkeley opened in May 2022. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The least controversial of the three measures on this year’s Berkeley ballot, Measure N, asks voters for approval to build up to 3,000 units of affordable housing.

That probably sounds appealing to many residents in a city where homelessness and the dire shortage of affordable places to live are top concerns.

But passing Measure N alone will not build new housing — the measure does not provide funding for affordable homes nor approve any specific projects. Instead, all the measure would do is grant the city, state or federal government permission to one day build more homes for low-income residents in Berkeley.

Measure N is expected to easily secure the majority support it needs to pass. Berkeley voters approved a similar ballot initiative in 2016, just as they had in 2000, 1987 and 1981; campaign finance records show no organized campaigns to pass or oppose Measure N.

Given that it would have such a limited impact, and that its passage is all but presumed, you could be forgiven for wondering why Measure N is on your ballot in the first place.

The answer lies in Article 34 of California’s state constitution, a provision adopted by voters in 1950 that requires cities to get approval from residents before they can build “low-rent” housing. California is the only state in the nation with such a requirement.

Critics regard Article 34 as a racist and exclusionary relic that has limited the production of affordable homes for decades by giving existing residents veto power over efforts to house less-wealthy people. It was approved, they note, a year after the passage of federal legislation outlawing racial segregation in public housing.

Voters rejected plans for thousands of affordable homes in the years after Article 34 was adopted, according to The Los Angeles Times, while other projects died because officials feared they wouldn’t pass at the ballot box. Although the measures routinely pass these days, the Times found, the requirement is one more hurdle for efforts to build affordable housing in California.

A ballot argument submitted against Berkeley’s Measure N argues dedicated affordable projects are the wrong way to create that housing — having developers include below-market-rate units within new apartment buildings, which don’t require voter approval, is the better option, according to opponents. The argument in favor, signed by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and others, says that method won’t create enough affordable housing, and that the city needs Measure N to pass to build the affordable homes it has planned for the future.

Opponents of Article 34 have asked California voters three times to repeal or weaken the provision over the years, most recently in 1993, but each of those attempts have failed. They’ll have another shot soon, though: The Mercury News reports the Legislature has voted overwhelmingly to put an initiative repealing Article 34 on the state ballot in 2024.

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Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...