California lawmakers ended one of their most tumultuous legislative sessions in years this weekend by approving a bevy of real-estate-related measures that eventually could spread to other parts of the nation.

The National Association of Realtors and other big real estate trade groups always keep a close eye on California legislation, in part because the state has a reputation for creating new laws–some good, others bad–that often serve as models for other states.

The new laws range from heightened disclosure of the home addresses of sex offenders to an “anti-Wal-Mart” bill that could discourage construction of big-box retail stores.

Bleary-eyed California legislators gaveled this year’s session to a close shortly before dawn on Saturday.

As usual, special-interest groups ranging from Realtors and lenders to homeowner associations and builders were right there with them–or in the hallways, at least–to make one last pitch for bills they either favored or opposed.

The California Association of Realtors notched a major victory when tired lawmakers approved AB 2702, a measure that would make it easier for property owners to build small “granny flats” in their backyards or next to their existing homes.

Realtors say the bill will help to ease the state’s chronic shortage of affordable housing, and perhaps even keep more families together by providing space for parents and grandparents to live with their offspring.

But the measure was opposed by officials from Beverly Hills and several other wealthy communities, who worry it will lead to the construction of cheap “bootleg” units, create more local traffic problems and maybe even cause an increase in crime.

Developers and other business groups didn’t fare as well as the Realtors did.

One closely watched bill that won approval, SB 1056, would require most local government agencies to perform an economic-impact study before approving construction of a local Wal-Mart or other type of “big-box” store.

The Associated Builders and Contractors of California, the California League of Cities, the California Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart and Costco Wholesale Corp. opposed the bill.

But the measure was approved early Saturday morning, thanks largely to its support from the AFL-CIO and the California Hispanic Professionals Association–two groups that have long complained that Wal-Mart and Costco purposely impede their union-organizing efforts.

Other real estate-related bills that were approved include:

  • AB 488, which will make the “Megan’s Law” database of sex offenders available on the Internet by next July.

    Currently, most California Realtors simply tell buyers to check with their local law-enforcement agency to find out if a registered sex offender lives in their neighborhood–in part because Web sites that once listed the names and home addresses of convicted molesters have been shut down by invasion-of-privacy lawsuits filed by convicts.

  • AB 2598, which will prohibit homeowners associations from foreclosing (or threatening to foreclose) on a property if the disputed bill against an owner is less than $2,500. Instead, HOAs will now have to first take their dispute to Small Claims Court.

  • AB 389, a new type of “Brownfields Law” that will provide financial incentives and some lawsuit-protection to builders and redevelopment agencies seeking to convert former industrial sites into housing tracts or retail centers.

  • The California Legislature also approved SB 1363, which will make it a crime for motel- and hotel-owners to raise their rental rates by more than 10 percent within 30 days after a major fire or other natural disaster.

The bill was drafted after thousands of people lost their homes to wildfires in San Diego and San Bernardino counties last year and then were charged more than $200 a night by owners of cut-rate lodging facilities that typically charge no more than $30 or $40.

The flurry of new legislation finally brought to a close the first-year term of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who often clashed with the state’s Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly.

Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on most of the new real estate measures. They will automatically become law if he does not sign or veto them within 30 days.

In another issue that has drawn nationwide attention, California lawmakers also approved a measure that would permit people who are in the U.S. illegally to get a state-issued driver’s license.

Schwarzenegger has suggested that he will veto the bill. Supporters of the measure say that providing undocumented aliens with driver’s licenses will make it easier for them to purchase auto insurance.

But critics of the plan say that providing a license to illegal aliens will not only provide them with important government benefits at taxpayer expense, but also could allow more terrorists into the country.

A similar bill was signed into law by former governor Gray Davis last year, fueling the controversy that eventually led to his recall.

The measure was quickly repealed after Schwarzenegger was elected last fall.


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