A bombshell report from the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office confirms what many have suspected for years — that tens of thousands of San Francisco apartments are just cold sitting empty in the midst of a housing crisis.
It’s a question that journalists and Housing Twitter types have been asking for years. How many housing units in San Francisco are actually empty? Several of us have tried methods of figuring this out, and we’ve gotten wildly different results. But the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, which has access to a lot more private residential information than journalists do, ran an exhaustive report on the topic at the request of Supervisor Dean Preston. And according to the San Francisco Business Times, they found that “Nearly one in 10 residential units sits empty in San Francisco.”
Hearing happening now on residential vacancies in San Francisco. Per a city report released today, 10% of the city's housing inventory is vacant — and some 40,500 units sat vacant as of 2019, a number that has been growing steadily since 2013.— Laura Waxmann (@laura_waxee) February 1, 2022
The Business Times, as well as the Chronicle and the SF Standard are all covering this in the context of Preston likely presenting a vacancy tax, a fight that will likely happen, but that’s for another day. What’s fascinating here are the details of the full 49-page report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, so let’s dive in.
“In 2019, the most recent year reported, there were 40,458 total housing units vacant in San Francisco, or approximately ten percent of the City’s 406,399 housing units,” the report says. “While a certain level of vacancy can be expected due to normal turnover of housing units, some units may be vacant due to owner preferences and actions that are inconsistent with policy goals of maximizing the City’s housing stock for residents.”
And when they say “inconsistent with policy goals,” they mean investors who are just sitting on empty units as investments, not unlike what we saw in the vacant Moms 4 Housing house saga.
In the chart above, this type of vacancy is referred to as “Sold but not Occupied” and is described as “the fastest growing segment of vacant housing in San Francisco over five years through 2019.” As the report details, “This type of vacancy may be due to owners buying new units while they are still under construction but it may also be due to owners purchasing them as investments or cash havens with no intention of moving in or renting them out.”
But the largest category of vacancies is the grab bag called Other Vacant, which includes “those that are vacant pending completion of repairs, pending a change in owner or owner family use, units being used for non-residential purposes such as equipment storage, units rented as corporate housing, units the owner wants to keep tenant-free for an eventual sale, units where the occupant is in a medical or residential care facility, and other explanations.” Some of those are good reasons, others are not.
And upwards around 9,000 of our apartment vacancies are richie-rich vacation homes, which are occupied only occasionally. These are described as Seasonal, Recreational, or Occasional Use vacancies, or “homes that sit vacant except for when the owners or their guests come to the City.”
But here’s the shocker, particularly when it comes to discussion that San Francisco iis not meeting its housing goals. We’re actually exceeding our goals for market-rate (expensive) housing, it’s the affordable housing that we’re lagging on. “The City is likely to meet its State-generated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) target for January 31, 2015 through January 31, 2023 of 28,869 new units,” the report says, “However, the distribution of units by affordability level shows that San Francisco has already exceeded its RHNA target for market rate housing but has under-produced housing compared to the goal for very low, low, and moderate income households.”
This is surely going to throw a wrench into the debates like that 27-story SoMa residential tower that the supervisors shot down, because critiques of that rejection have noted they rejected a 24% affordable housing project. But that also means it was 76% market rate, and this report indicates the city is doing just fine with market rate housing. And the report may prompt the board and various city agencies to demand even higher percentages of affordable housing.
But most importantly, it will hopefully make us all demand answers on how a city can have at least 8,000 homeless people while simultaneously having more than 40,000 empty apartments.
Image: @bradencollum via Unsplash