Berkeley City Council debated the imposition of a new tax on properties intentionally left off the rental market by their owners during a meeting Tuesday.
The proposed measure is part of the council’s response to the affordable housing crisis in Berkeley, according to Vice Mayor Kate Harrison. It would tax the owners of properties owned by corporations or LLCs that have been vacant for over a year, including multi-unit buildings, single family homes and condominiums. Harrison proposed the tax be included on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“We are here to turn empty units into homes,” Harrison said during the meeting. “We have a dual crisis of unaffordability and displacement. This is happening while we can see that there is an unforgivable number of units that lie vacant, many of them for years.”
If the measure is passed by voters, it will take effect in 2024. The proposed tax is $3,000 on smaller units and $6,000 on larger units, values which double upon two years of vacancy. Harrison said it was estimated that up to 1,100 vacant units would become available for use.
City Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani opposed the proposition, saying the measure may draw attention away from the $150 million housing bond measure that is already scheduled to appear on the November ballot, a sentiment echoed by Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Councilmember Susan Wengraf added it was wrong to punish “mom-and-pop homeowners” already burdened by the pandemic and eviction moratorium.
“We say to our homeowners, ‘pay for everything in this city,’ and we never say to developers or out-of-town people, ‘pay for it,’ ” Harrison said during the meeting in response to the opposition. “That’s what’s going on here, we don’t want to make corporations pay.”
The council also postponed discussion about a contract between Axon Enterprise and the Berkeley Police Department to a special meeting next Tuesday and moved discussion on the city budget to their meeting scheduled for July 28.
During public comments later in the meeting, residents raised issues with changes made to the city of Berkeley website.
Resident Elana Auerbach found the new website “frustrating” because of its lack of archival information. According to Auerbach, information that used to be publicly available now has to be accessed through requests to the city clerk.
Additionally, many public commentators urged the passing of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or TOPA, citing it as another chance at affordable housing. Rahel Smith, a homeowner and landlord, argued that support for TOPA “helps others get an edge” in a tight housing market.
“I want folks who are renters to have the same chance I had to be a homeowner,” Smith said during the meeting.
Lance Roberts, Maya Jimenez and Ratul Mangal contributed to this story.