Statehouse briefs | Bills on social housing, naloxone affordability, caste discrimination clear initial hurdles

the california state capitol building under a blue clear sky

SACRAMENTO — It’s been a busy month at the state Legislature, where several bills from local lawmakers made it through their respective committee hearings. They’re still a long way from becoming laws, but elected officials and advocates of the bills applauded the decisions.

The state could start building housing if Assemblymember Alex Lee’s bill passes

The state Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development passed a major housing bill on a 5-2 vote earlier this week, taking a crucial step toward revolutionizing the production of affordable housing in the state.

Assembly Bill 309, or the Social Housing Act, which was introduced by Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-District 24), would create an independent state body, the California Housing Authority, with the goal of creating mixed-income social housing developments that meet the state’s housing production goals and maintain the affordability of housing. The bill borrows from the Vienna model for constructing social housing, which was successfully employed a hundred years ago to address a similar housing crisis, Lee told the committee.

“Public construction isn’t scary,” Lee said. “In fact, they can be so beautiful, clean and vibrant and inspiring while housing everyone. This model of social housing is successful in many parts of the world, including Austria, of course, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, France, Germany, Ireland and many other developed peers that we look to all the time.”

The bill would establish two leasing models in social housing developments, one for rental and one for ownership, with the latter extending a 99-year lease to residents committed to a minimum five-year term of residence. The bill would establish the Social Housing Revolving Loan Fund to provide zero-interest loans for constructing housing that accommodates a mix of household incomes. The California Housing Authority would be required to achieve revenue neutrality and recuperate the cost of development and operations over the life of its properties through mechanisms that maximize the number of Californians who can be housed without experiencing rent burden.

Regular audits of the authority’s accounts and records would be required, and the authority would need to provide annual reporting information to the Legislature on its business plan and progress.

State lawmakers reject harsher drug penalties in favor of public health strategies

California lawmakers have rejected several bills that would have increased penalties for fentanyl-related offenses, which experts and families warned could have led to more deaths and devastation. Public health advocates and family members who have lost loved ones to drug overdose applauded the Assembly Public Safety Committee yesterday for prioritizing public health strategies to address the overdose crisis.

“Fear kills. The threat of incarceration increases fear and keeps people from calling 911 in an overdose emergency. My 20-year-old son died because the people he was with at the time of his overdose were too afraid to call for help,” Aimee Dunkle, executive director of Solace Foundation and board member of Broken No More, said in a press release from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “I thank the chair and committee members for siding with the evidence and considering alternative solutions to address this public health crisis.”

Opponents of Assembly Bill 367, AB 675, AB 955 and AB 1058 pointed to existing criminal penalties that can result in lengthy incarceration for fentanyl-related offenses. They also cited federal data showing that longer prison sentences do not deter crime. Instead, they called for greater investment in drug treatment, programs that offer medication to prevent overdoses and connect people to treatment, fentanyl test strips, public education campaigns, and overdose prevention centers.

“We are grateful the Legislature has learned from the lessons of the past and rejected this slate of draconian bills. The war on drugs did not make our communities safer. Instead, it unleashed an era of mass incarceration on Black and brown people like no other in the history of the United States,” Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods said in the release. “Jails and prisons are not the solution; instead we must invest in drug treatment and harm reduction programs. We cannot incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis.”

Bill to make naloxone affordable passes through Assembly Health Committee

A bill that aims to make a medication that reverses opioid overdoses affordable passed unanimously through the state Assembly Health Committee earlier this week.

Assembly Bill 1060, introduced by Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-District 20), would ensure Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, is affordable following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision to approve over-the-counter sales of the medication last month. Ortega has warned that the medication’s cost may still be prohibitively high for many people, and her proposed legislation would mandate that Medi-Cal and other insurers cover the cost of both prescription and over-the-counter naloxone.

“The numbers are shocking,” Ortega said in a statement. “Over 150 people per day are dying in the US from opioid poisoning, with fentanyl being the deadliest. I applaud the FDA’s decision to make Narcan more accessible. My bill will make it more affordable.”

In California, there were over 6,800 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2021, the majority of which were attributed to fentanyl. The FDA’s move to increase the accessibility of naloxone is expected to decrease the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths, and Ortega’s bill aims to guarantee that price is not a barrier to access for Californians. It has the support of public health organizations and State Attorney General Rob Bonta.

The bill is set to go before the Assembly Appropriations Committee next.

Bill requiring workplace rights education for high schoolers advances to next stage

Assembly Bill 800, which was introduced by Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-District 20) and would require California high schools to hold an annual “Workplace Readiness Week” to teach students about their workplace rights, passed out of the Assembly Education Committee with a 5-2 vote earlier this month.

The bill would empower high school juniors and seniors with the tools and knowledge to protect and advocate for themselves in the workplace. The bill is sponsored by the California Labor Federation, GenUp, and California Federation of Teachers, and has the support of several other labor and youth groups. It will now be referred to the Labor Committee.

“I am so proud to see this bill pass through its first policy committee,” Assemblymember Ortega said in a press release. “We have received so much support from labor, student, and PTA groups. It has been amazing to see the community come together to express how much this bill means to them.”

The proposal comes after alarming reports of labor abuses and workplace injuries suffered by young workers, including migrant children who have been found to work long hours in dangerous conditions. The legislation aims to prevent such abuses by educating young workers on their rights and how to seek help.

Bill aimed at banning caste discrimination passes Senate Judiciary Committee

Senate Bill 403, which was proposed by State Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-District 10) and would ban caste-based discrimination in California, passed unanimously through the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week, marking an important step forward in establishing legal protections for individuals who have suffered from this form of discrimination.

“Caste discrimination is wrong and the people experiencing it deserve all the support and protections we offer to the already-protected characteristics in our anti-discrimination laws,” Wahab said at the hearing, adding that the passage of the bill could inspire similar laws in other parts of the country and world.

Caste is a social ranking system prevalent in many parts of the world, such as South Asia, that designates an individual’s social status at birth based on their ancestry. SB 403 would add caste to the list of protected characteristics under California’s civil rights laws, protecting individuals from discrimination in areas such as employment and housing, as well as victims of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence.

The bill’s introduction follows a survey by nonprofit Equality Labs that found 41% of Dalits, a community that suffers from caste-based discrimination and were known as “the untouchables,” experienced discrimination at school, 67% experienced it at work, and 26% experienced physical violence because of their caste. The bill has received praise from advocates but has been criticized by a vocal minority of the Indian American community.

The bill is expected to be heard before the Senate Appropriations Committee at 10 a.m. May 8.

Wahab’s bill would bring captive audience meetings to an end in California

A new bill introduced by State Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-District 10) would prevent employers from forcing their employees to go to meetings or talk about topics like religion and politics.

Senate Bill 399 is among the bills that cleared initial legislative hurdles this week, passing through the Senate Judiciary Committee with nine votes in favor and two votes in opposition from Republican senators Roger Niello (R-District 6) and Scott Wilk (R-District 21). The bill would clarify that workers have the freedom to refuse to attend mandatory meetings where their employer is expressing their personal feelings on matters of religion or politics, including whether or not they support unions or particular political initiatives, Wahab told the committee.

“These meetings are often referred to as captive audience meetings because, although not job-related, workers are not permitted to leave or not attend without facing discipline or other adverse action,” Wahab said.

The Alatorre-Zenovich-Dunlap-Berman Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 already protects agricultural employees from employer interference, but this bill would extend the protection to employees in all industries. The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement would enforce the new law, and workers who experience negative consequences for refusing to attend these meetings could file a legal case and ask for help to make the inappropriate communications and meetings stop.

The bill, which heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee next, is supported by unions across industries and across the state.

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