GOP Assemblyman Chris Norby is a former Orange County supervisor with a longtime and deep aversion to California's 425 redevelopment agencies. Some redevelopment zones may eliminate blight and provide low-income housing as originally intended, he concedes, but redevelopment also allows billions of tax dollars to bankroll the building of a lot of half-empty shopping malls, as well as sweetheart deals that pad the pockets of well-connected developers.
As Norby put it, redevelopment served as an "unknown government" that feeds "the most wasteful, the most fraudulent and the most abusive" spending in California government.
When Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, he was a big redevelopment booster. Now that he's the governor of a state facing a $25 billion shortfall, Brown has found common ground with Norby. The governor is proposing steering $1.7 billion away from redevelopment agencies and into schools, counties and the state.
As Brown told the League of California Cities last week, when he was mayor, he "liked redevelopment. I didn't quite understand it. It seemed kind of magical. It was the money that you could spend on stuff that they wouldn't otherwise let you spend."
Translation: The system rewards local pols whether they spend the money wisely or do not. While boosters say that redevelopment fosters economic growth, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recently reported, "we find no reliable evidence that this program improves overall economic development in California."
A 1998 Public Policy Institute report found that redevelopment agencies "generate only slightly more than half of the property tax revenues they receive each year."
So what's to like?
California passed redevelopment laws to combat urban blight, with an added mandate that 20 percent of funds go toward affordable housing. Yet a Los Angeles Times investigation found last year that 120 cities spent more than $700 million on housing without building a single new unit. Cities have declared acres of empty farmland as blight, and some agencies have torn down houses -- like some dilapidated cottages across the street from the home of the mayor of Avalon, on Catalina Island -- without replacing them.
Which gets to a point that sticks in Norby's craw -- some redevelopment agencies use the power of eminent domain to destroy modest homes and shutter blue-collar businesses.