Berkeley City Council to vote on new qualifications for vacancy fines

David Rodriguez/Staff

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Berkeley City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to adopt an ordinance that would amend the Berkeley Municipal Code to levy fines for residential buildings vacant for more than 120 days.

Introduced by Councilmember Kate Harrison, agenda item 28 is intended to help curb the city’s housing affordability crisis, according to the council’s agenda for its meeting Tuesday. While the city has taken action by building new affordable units, some council members believe taxing the city’s more than 100 vacant buildings is another solution to curbing the crisis.

“(It’s an) appearance issue of the city, but we’re also dealing with the fact that these are bigger buildings that are rental units not being rented,” Harrison said. “Those buildings could be housing a lot of tenants.”

According to the agenda, vacant buildings often contribute to a decrease in the quality of city life for reasons including increased criminal activity. Some city buildings have been vacant for as many as 28 years. The agenda states that the ordinance, similar to those that have been imposed in cities such as West Sacramento and Roseville, could help curb these negative effects.

Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, or BPOA, disagrees that the fines levied by the proposed ordinance will discourage owners from keeping their properties off the market. BPOA, which opposes the measure, has engaged with council members in conversations regarding their opinions, according to Gulbransen.

“Sometimes people will run the numbers, and even with the fine, it’s still worth it to keep (a property) off than to put it on,” Gulbransen said.

While she is in opposition to the new ordinance, Gulbransen is for solving the city’s housing crisis. She suggested incentivizing owners to rent out their properties as one solution to Berkeley’s dearth of affordable housing. Like Gulbransen, Harrison hopes Berkeley can see the other side of the crisis.

Berkeley’s current ordinance declares a building an unlawful nuisance if it meets at least two out of five conditions. According to Harrison, the proposed amendment adds a sixth condition: Residential buildings cannot stand vacant for more than 120 days.

Adoption of the proposed ordinance would not modify the penalties for violating the current ordinance — $100 for a first violation and $200 for a second violation, with the highest fine being $500 for failing to comply more than once in a calendar year.

The ordinance would impose no additional cost on the city and would potentially increase revenue through fines, according to the agenda. Exceptions can be made by the city manager in situations such as construction and natural disaster.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington expressed that he supports the measure because he believes the city should be doing anything that will encourage people to fix up and rent out vacant buildings.

“When I bicycle from my apartment to City Hall, I pass a lot of uninhabited buildings, and it’s so depressing, and people are urgently looking for places to live,” Worthington said. “It’s so sad during the time of a housing crisis to have vacant housing.

Contact Alexandra Reinecke at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @arhine9.