Berkeley City Council discussed a proposed vacancy tax and problems with the city’s website during Tuesday’s special and regular meetings.
The special meeting began at 3 p.m. and lasted well into the evening, delaying the council’s regular meeting. The delay was due in part to an overwhelming response to the proposed Empty Homes Tax Ordinance, also called the vacancy tax.
Vice Mayor Kate Harrison, who authored the tax proposal, said the vacancy tax could be an effective way to put unrented housing back on the market to alleviate the city’s housing shortage.
“Tax policy is frequently used to change human behavior,” Harrison said at the meeting. “More important than the revenue that we collect, my goal is to get this housing back on the market now. The tax is a quick and easy approach to providing a strong incentive for owners to renovate and rent out these buildings.”
In response to criticism raised over the proposal, Harrison noted there are some exceptions to the law, such as housing owned by low-income seniors or non-corporate owners of up to two single-family homes, and housing under active construction or awaiting permits.
Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani raised several questions over the tax’s enforcement, including the city’s lack of an investigations body to identify taxable properties.
Kesarwani also emphasized that duplexes located in West and South Berkeley are not exempt from the tax. She added that people of color who own property could be unfairly punished by the tax.
“I’m not going to allow my property owners of color who have a duplex or a triplex to get ensnared in some kind of a regime like this that could cause them to lose their toehold and their foothold in this city,” Kesarwani said at the meeting. “I cannot support that at this time.”
Seeing as much more was left to be discussed, Mayor Arreguín and the council agreed to continue discussing the tax proposal on Aug. 3.
At 9 p.m., the council began its regular meeting, which focused on potential changes to the city’s new website. The website, which was remodeled earlier this year, has garnered criticism for its lack of access to historical documents and data that were previously available.
Arreguín said though the new website has overall improved services, its lack of ease in finding old information is prohibitive. Councilmember Sophie Hahn echoed his sentiment.
“It wasn’t possible for us to imagine just how much material would no longer be available,” Hahn said. “It’s been kind of a cold flash for this website to have lost all that ease of functionality.”
The council voted to adjourn the meeting before the changes to the website could be voted on. All unfinished business from the meeting will be addressed at a later time, according to Arreguín.