No More Vacancy: Statement From the Housing & Homelessness Committee

Housing insecurity has long been a political crisis: a site of struggle between the rich and poor, and a mechanism for the former to grow their wealth at the expense of the latter. Housing is a basic necessity and a major influence on general human health and wellbeing, yet housing today also drives our broken economy. Real estate assets amount to a staggering $217 trillion, more than 60% of global wealth, while no less than 150 million people live without shelter worldwide. Now, more than ever, homes are a key part of the commodified economy. Housing is used as an investment device — often left empty to accumulate more capital off the speculative market. 

Some say the crisis is a problem of supply and demand — that there simply isn’t enough housing for everyone who needs it. But vacancy numbers in our city tell a different story. Currently, there are more than 110,000 vacant units in Los Angeles, while 58,936 people live without permanent shelter. At the same time, an estimated 600,000 LA County residents spent 90 percent of their income on rent — essentially one paycheck or emergency away from entering into homelessness. What we need more than anything is housing that is truly affordable, accessible to the places we frequent, and controlled democratically — and not hostage to real estate interests. But we also consider the current number of vacant, habitable units in the face of our housing affordability crisis to be a political failure and we call for urgent change to the incentive structures that have created it.

Public Land for Public Good

While private developer interests have monopolized the urban transformation of Los Angeles over the last century, intensifying segregation and exclusion, the largest local landowner in LA remains the city itself (including Metro and LAUSD), with close to 9,000 parcels, many of which lie vacant without a clear development strategy. With millions of tenants in crisis across LA county, and an unhoused population of 58,936 people counted by LAHSA in 2019, the inexcusable mismatch and neglect of existing supply to serve urgent social need is increasingly clear.

Because we believe that public land should be utilized for public good, we demand that the city cease to funnel resources to private developers that could be used to de-commodify and democratically control land and housing. The speculative market will only work to displace existing communities and the working poor of LA.

DSA-LA endorses End Homelessness Now-LA, a community campaign to deploy underutilized and vacant public property and public funds for permanent housing, rather than deferring to the private sector. 

Vacancy Tax and the Need for Vacancy Data

We also have to look beyond publicly-owned land to see the inadequacy of market-driven housing policy. A staggering number of properties in Los Angeles are used as investments or second homes for the rich, and sit mostly unoccupied — enough to provide shelter for every unhoused person in the city. Here we see the real failings of the capitalist housing market: we could build enough housing for every single person who needs it, but private interests will never distribute shelter equally (or at all) if it’s more profitable to hold on to the investment.

Short of seizing these properties from their private owners to provide housing for all, we can implement a vacancy tax (also called an empty homes tax) to disincentivize leaving units vacant and to fund public or subsidized housing. We applaud LA City Councilmembers Mike Bonin, Marqueese Harris-Dawson, Paul Koretz, and David Ryu for their recent call for a report on the amount of vacant, habitable housing units in the City of Los Angeles and for a study of possible vacancy taxes, for consideration by voters in 2020 — and urge the City Council Housing Committee to vote yes on it this Wednesday, August 28.

There are many forms a vacancy tax could take; one passed by Vancouver in 2017 demonstrates the tangible benefits of this policy. The new tax requires that owners pay 1% of a property’s assessed value per year if the home is left vacant for more than six months of the year. Owners are exempt if they only recently bought the property, they work part of the year in the city and otherwise reside elsewhere, or if city zoning would not allow them to rent the property. The revenue generated is earmarked for affordable housing funds. After just one year of implementing this tax, Vancouver raised more than $38 million, most of which will fund affordable housing programs. Other major cities have followed suit, including Melbourne, Paris, and Oakland. 

However, we must also note that a vacancy tax alone is not adequate if it does not fund socially-owned housing developments that are permanently affordable, democratically controlled, and available to residents of all incomes. It also does nothing to protect tenants from unfair rent increases or from landlord harassment — it’s a reform that forces people to confront the inadequacies of the capitalist housing market and to punish the rich for taking advantage of it.

Homes Not Hotels

In Hollywood, where the number of hotel rooms has doubled since 2000, members of our NOlympics LA working group have begun organizing Homes Nøt Hotels: a campaign targeting unchecked hotel development slated to displace longtime residents. We endorse this campaign, and reject the premise of a hotel room shortage, just as we reject supply and demand excuses for market rate and luxury housing development. Conversion of existing housing stock to new hotels and short term rentals is guaranteed to exacerbate the tenant crisis.

According to insideairbnb.com (a site populated with scraped data related to Airbnb statistics), there are almost 45,000 listings in Los Angeles alone. 53.6% of hosts are identified as "multi-listers" with 57.8% (over 25,000) listings considered "highly available." Considering over 36,000 unhoused tenants were tallied in the city of Los Angeles and over 58,000 in LA County, it is inhumane for Airbnb to market 45,000 listings as open units. 

Though the new rules limit Airbnb units to primary residences (defined as 6+ months residency by the host) and a 120-day-per-year cap on renting, there are loopholes for privileged, rich property owners who may earn ill-defined "special approval" from City Council and by paying extra fees. We urge City Council to prevent the abuse of this system by landlords, whether the landlord is requesting to evict their tenants under the state Ellis Act or seeking exemption from the short-term rental ordinance, or simply making their tenants feel unsafe or uncomfortable in order to drive them away.

People Over Profits: Bold Action Now

Ultimately we ask that our elected officials prioritize human need over speculative investment. The commodification of housing has made it the biggest driver of inequality. Large companies are generating profit at the expense of tenants being unable to procure basic necessities, such as medicine and food. The private sector is deliberately withholding housing from those who need it, all for the sake of generating the largest amount of capital possible. The number of rent burdened households is spreading, especially in high cost coastal markets, such as Los Angeles. The majority of renters are black and latinx households, two groups that already suffer disproportionately from economic disparity. As Barcelona fines property owners of vacant buildings for sometimes hundreds of thousands of Euros and Berlin is considering a referendum on banning corporate landlords and mass property expropriation, using city-owned properties for housing, and taxing privately-owned vacant units would be modest reforms until housing can be decommodified. Now is the time for bold and transformative action for all who rely on housing to live, not to profit.