Voters in a California city weigh taxing vacant properties to help ease homelessness

Oct 11, 2018

Like many Oakland residents, Candice Elder, 34, is alarmed at the rapidly increasing number of people pitching tents on sidewalks and under freeways in the city.

Unlike most residents, Elder has worked at dozens of homeless encampments as part of a team providing “rapid response services on call 24-7,” including food, crisis management and medical assistance.

“The rate of homelessness has dramatically increased in the last few years. And you can correlate that to the affordability crisis,” said Elder, founder and director of The East Oakland Collective nonprofit, as she visited a 65-year-old woman sitting on a corner, surrounded by piles of belongings.

It could take years to build more affordable housing, but Elder sees a faster way to relieve homelessness in the city.

“There's a lot of vacant properties that haven’t been used for years,” Elder said as she pointed to a fenced empty parcel next to the encampment she visited on a recent morning. “As a city and as a community, we need to take a look at these vacant public and private lands and see how we can use them.”

Voters will decide on taxing owners of vacant properties

Oakland voters could approve the state’s first tax on privately owned vacant properties in November. The city estimates the tax could raise as much as $10 million annually, with the money helping pay for homeless services, reducing blight, stemming illegal dumping and assisting the construction of affordable housing.

Owners of properties in use fewer than 50 days per year would be taxed as much as $6,000 per parcel annually if two-thirds of voters approve the measure.

Two weeks after the Oakland City Council voted 6-2 to place the tax on the ballot, officials in the neighboring city of Richmond greenlighted a similar proposal.

Owners of vacant properties in Oakland would pay the same amount of additional tax, regardless of the size or worth of their property. Under California law, cities cannot legally tie a parcel tax to market values.