It's a comment news orgs get on nearly every story about San Francisco's rent control laws — something like,"I'm a property owner, but I refuse to rent out my vacant apartment(s) because rent control is so onerous." But those wide-open-space loving landlords might soon want to hide their light under a (non-rent-controlled) bushel, as SF officials are looking into ways to impose financial penalties onto folks that choose to keep their units vacant.
To be fair, it's not just commenters (you guys know I love you, right?). After all, who can forget the 2013 New York Times op-ed from local writer Scott James, which admitted that "The City by the Bay is going through one of its worst housing shortages in memory...One reason for the shortage? Me," explaining that after years of renting out a one-bedroom apartment in the building he owns with his partner, a bad tenant soured them on landlordery.
And now, perhaps, even sourer news for the tenant-burnt, as the Ex reports today that Supervisor Aaron Peskin has asked the City Attorney’s Office “to explore legislation that would allow the city and county San Francisco to impose a vacancy tax on property owners to help mitigate the impacts of the widespread practice of warehousing valuable residential and commercial units.”
According to Peskin, “I continue to receive emails and requests from constituents to address the overwhelming number of vacancies both commercial and residential that continue to contribute to our housing crisis as well as the displacement and struggles of our small businesses.”
It's worth noting here that San Francisco's Department of Building Inspection has since 2009 required owners of empty buildings (commercial and residential) to register their property as vacant with the city, including an explanation of "what future plans they have for the property." They must also pay a $765 annual fee.
In 2014, SF's building code was amended (you can see the amendment here) to say that vacant commercial storefront spaces fall under the vacant building code unless they're currently under renovation or construction.
According to the Ex, the vacancy tax first came up at a Planning Commission meeting last month, during a discussion on San Francisco's housing supply. "The commissioners said there was a lack of city data on the number of units sitting vacant, but worried that vacancies were contributing to the shortage of housing in the city" they write.
It's tempting to interject with here with a "no s**t, Sherlock." Even landlord-no-more Scott James admits as much, saying in 2013 that SF's had "about [vacant] 10,600 rental units. That’s about five percent of the city’s total — or enough space to house up to 30,000 people in a city that barely tops 800,000."
And that number has risen sharply, as according to a 2014 census data analysis from SPUR, SF at that time had "30,000 vacant units, which included 8,900 units in the process of being rented, 2,400 ownership units in the process being sold or sold and not yet occupied, vacation or seasonal use at about 9,100 units, and 9,700 units not in any of those categories," the Ex reports.
More anecdotally, Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore said at the meeting that she believes vacant housing units are on the rise, as “I walk my neighborhood frequently...On the outside, they all look very nice but there is nobody home.”
So from Planning, the idea went to Peskin, who is presumably seeking to push those laws further and impose greater fines, as $765 a year is to many landlords likely an acceptable cost of not doing business, as it were.
Keep an eye on this one, folks, as it could make for some interesting bedfellows — while Peskin is arguably the most "progressive" member of the Board, it's comparatively conservative Outer Sunset Supe Katy Tang who made 2014's empty storefront crackdown happen. Will the often-at-odds supes join forces to quash San Francisco's plague of vacancies? Guess we'll soon see.