How Can We Reduce the Number of Vacant Homes? (And the limitations of the approach)

Vacant homes are a waste of resources and an insult to those lacking housing.

Let’s pass policy to put them to use — while also recognizing that in places with a housing shortage, getting to 100% occupancy will help some middle class tenants but won’t end homelessness.

Most studies of vacant homes find:
About 1/2 are on the way to being occupied:
— Homes for rent
— Homes for sale
— Rented and purchased homes awaiting move-in
— Homes being renovated

Most of rest are:
— Vacation homes
— Pied-a-terres (apartments in city used sometimes by suburbanites)
— Held empty as an investment

There are also some where the resident is in long term care facility.

To reduce vacant “Homes for rent”:
1) Reduce evictions and move-outs through rent control and Just Cause protections. Example: California’s AB1482.
2) Require landlords to accept the first qualified applicant. Seattle recently passed a law to do this as an anti-discrimination measure.

To reduce vacant “Homes for sale”:
1) Pass a “flip tax” to disincentivize frequent selling. This is an extra-large tax on property sold more than once in a short period of time, typically a few years or less.
Other than that the housing shortage is already doing a good job of getting houses sold fast.

To reduce homes vacant for “Renovation”:
1) Limit pass-through rent increases for renovations that aren’t related to safety issues.
2) Allow vacancy control by repealing Costa-Hawkins.
3) Streamline permitting and inspection process.

To reduce number of vacant “Vacation homes / Pied-a-Terres
1) End the mortgage tax break for 2nd homes in cities and rural areas with housing shortages. In 2017, a CA law AB-71 was proposed to do that, but died in committee. Some rural areas that relied on tourism were concerned. Let’s give them an exemption and bring it back in 2020.
2) Ban full time AirBNB’ing of entire homes. Example from Berkeley.
3) Build more hotels.
4) Tax the rich more.
5) Improve nightlife in the suburbs.

To reduce vacant homes “Held empty as an investment”:
1) Raise taxes on capital gains.
2) Pass a vacancy tax.
3) Raise property taxes.
4) Reduce secrecy around property ownership with a statewide registry. Example from Vancouver. Potential future California legislation AB724.

To reduce number of homes that are vacant because “resident is in long term care facility” we can help more people age in place by:
1) More funding / better pay for in-home healthcare.
2) Build/renovate homes to be fully accessible.

Many California cities currently have vacancy rates just over 3%. With a full range of policies to reduce turnover, speed up occupancy, divert short term uses to hotels, and divert investment dollars into something else, we may be able to pick up a couple percentage points.

Reducing vacancy will help, but it won’t end homelessness. With thousands commuting in, and many people doubled up or living in vehicles, the Bay Area and LA are effectively at negative vacancy rates. As vacant homes open up, it’ll be the middle class that fills them.

Just like there’s no substitute for public health or public schools if you want everyone to have healthcare and education, there is no substitute for public housing if you want everyone to have housing.



Artist and Designer in Berkeley, California

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store