LA housing advocates push for tax on owners who keep units vacant

KOREATOWN, LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Housing rights activists in Los Angeles are taking aim at people and corporations that own housing units and are keeping them empty instead of renting them out.

The group Strategic Action for a Just Economy staged a news conference outside the Solair Condominium building in Koreatown Tuesday. SAJE says 76% of the units in that building sit vacant either because their owners are seeking rents that are priced too high or they simply treat the units as investment vehicles they are not looking to rent.

A study released by SAJE finds there are about three empty housing units for every homeless person in L.A. In L.A. County there are four vacant units per homeless person. The group's solution is to enact a vacancy tax on units that sit empty.

"It would put a fine or a penalty on owners who leave units vacant for more than three months out of the year," said Terra Graziani of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action.

This map shows housing vacancies by zip code in California.

Vancouver British Columbia enacted a vacancy tax two years ago for the same reasons. The city assessed a 1% levy on a home's assessed value if that home is occupied less than half a year.

Supporters say in the first year, the number of vacant units dropped 15% and the tax generated $38 million for affordable housing projects.

"We have an eviction crisis, we have a homelessness crisis... and we should be using these units to house people,'" said Graziani.

But a group representing owners and landlords is blasting the idea of a vacancy tax. The California Apartment Association tells Eyewitness News the vacancy rate in the city of Los Angeles is low, which has pushed rents up. U.S. Census figures put L.A.'s vacancy rate at 3.6%.

"We have seen no evidence that owners are deliberately keeping units vacant, which makes no financial sense," said Beverly Kenworthy of C.A.A. L.A. "If a unit is vacant it could be for a number of reasons - new buildings typically take 8 to 12 months to fully lease or a unit could be undergoing rehab work. We believe a vacancy tax is a solution looking for a problem."

Meanwhile, the L.A. City Council is studying the idea of an empty housing penalty. Councilmembers say it may make it onto next year's ballot.
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