Issue: The United States is in the midst of a severe housing crisis, driven not by a lack of supply, but by a surplus of greed. Nowhere is the crisis more acute than San Francisco, which makes up 2.2% of California’s population and accounts for 23.5% of the state’s total homeless population. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, California has the second-highest rate of unsheltered homeless individuals in the nation, with 86.9% of our state’s homeless lacking shelter on any given night.
From 2000 to 2016, the number of vacant housing units in the United States rose by 30%, while the average housing price rose by 6%. In San Francisco, prices went up over 40%. Something fundamental in our country is clearly broken when a commodity as crucial as housing becomes more expensive despite a drastic increase in supply. Our housing crisis is not a matter of immutable economic forces, it’s the result of short-sighted profit gouging by self-interested investors enabled by corporate-funded politicians.
Proposal: When the number of vacant housing units so drastically outweighs the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets every night, it’s a sign that we’re in need of a major paradigm shift. Australia, Vancouver, and London have all experimented with various forms of taxing vacant properties, and it’s time to start talking about a national vacancy tax in the United States. Designed to remove the incentives that lead investors to hoard valuable rental units and properties, a nationwide vacancy tax would force the housing market to respond to true market forces and meet the American people’s demand for affordable housing—when they need it the most.
A vacancy tax would tax property owners at an increasing rate for failing to lower the advertised rent on units that are at or above market rate after an extended period of vacancy. It would only apply to owners holding more than ten properties, or over $5,000,000 worth of properties. As well as passing a vacancy tax, Congress needs to fund increases in Section 8 housing budgets to meet the waitlists of people in need of housing subsidies.
To continue the decreases in nationwide homelessness we saw under the Obama administration, Congress should increase funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development for housing first and rapid re-housing programs. Additionally, we should provide local governments the flexibility necessary to balance their services between the rapid re-housing model and a more incremental continuum of care approach. No two homeless people face the same obstacles, and local providers should have both the resources and the flexibility to meet the needs of each individual.
We’ve tried prioritizing economic growth in terms of gross averages, and it hasn’t worked for the majority of us who were left behind by a system that only works to make the rich richer. We can no longer afford to let this continue, it’s time to put that money to better use and guarantee safe, stable housing as a right for all Americans.
(Census Bureau 2016 estimate)
(HUD 2016 Homeless Assessment)
(2016 BLA Audit of Homeless Services)