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One of the most commonly heard criticisms of consumer attorneys in the California state Capitol, Sacramento, is that they rely on old-style insider deal making rather than new-style grass-roots lobbying coalitions designed to sway today’s more independent — and inexperienced — lawmakers. Call them dinosaurs no more. Facing legislation Tuesday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee that sought to limit construction defect litigation, the Consumer Attorneys of California slapped together a “Home Safe Campaign” that brought dozens of angry homeowners who have sued over construction defects to Sacramento to lobby against the Democrat-authored bills. Limiting construction defect litigation is only one prong of an ambitious legislative package that its sponsors say aims to strike a balance between jobs and affordable housing. Some of its measures take a traditional Democratic approach and seek new funds for low-income homeownership programs or for targeted growth in high job areas. Others measures carried by conservatives of both parties seek to limit environmental reviews or counter local low-growth initiatives. Given California’s housing shortage, many of these bills are gathering bipartisan support — and they have the considerable clout of being backed by the high-tech corporate powerhouses of the Silicon Valley. That combination has drawn backers ranging from housing advocates for the poor to the building industry, from labor to the Chamber of Commerce, and many in between. Hence, the CAOC has faced a major challenge in finding a way to oppose the part of this juggernaut that is going after construction defect litigation. On Tuesday, they appeared to have found a vehicle. First, Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont) postponed a hearing on his AB 2112, a proposal for a 10-year home construction warranty program that would guarantee new home repairs in return for homeowners’ agreeing not to litigate. The bill will be heard in committee next week, the last date it can be heard. It has already been defeated in one previous incarnation and its backers don’t hold out much hope this session, but they say they are steadily advancing the issue and that Dutra will bring the bill back next year. Meanwhile, builders and their affordable housing allies hoped a second and less sweeping measure stood a better chance. Assemblyman Thomas Calderon, a Los Angeles Democrat, had thought to pass his AB 2632 by narrowing it. In its amended form, “it would allow a third party inspector to have limited immunity from liability,” he told the Assembly Judiciary Committee, “so he can be on site to catch [construction] defects while they are happening and have builders correct them on the spot.” Appearing slightly shell shocked, he prefaced his remarks by noting, “As a newcomer, you walk into debates whose intensity you don’t realize.” But attorney Tyler Berding of Alamo, speaking for the opposition, told the committee that builders pay large fees for local inspection, money that all too often disappeared into the general fund. “First, require cities and counties to use building inspector fees for building inspections,” he urged. “Try that first.” His companion, attorney Mark Milstein of Los Angeles, who specializes in construction defect litigation and spoke on behalf of the CAOC, warned that architects and engineers as well as builders would use “immunized” inspectors to protect themselves from litigation. Calderon insisted that builders would not be able to shield themselves from liability via his bill, concluding, “It’s troubling to hear the only answer is that you should have the right to sue. The inspector is not going to be the deep pocket anyway: This just puts him out in the field, resulting in more affordable homes.” AB 2632 was defeated on a 5-5 vote. Meeting afterwards with the 30 or so homeowners who had paid their own way to come to the Capitol, Milstein congratulated them. “Builders used to say defects were very rare,” he told them. Because of their visits to lawmakers, “the beauty now is that legislators are … finally seeing defects are real. Our next step is to impose laws requiring good construction.” But the rawness of the CAOC coalition was perhaps illustrated in one new member’s lament. “Even with lawsuits, we don’t end up with money to fix our houses,” said J.J. Vogel of Hollister, who started Advocates for Quality Home Construction in the wake of his own bad experience with construction defects. “We win, but attorneys fees are so high, there’s nothing left.”

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