Preston calls vacancies ‘the single biggest source of potential housing in San Francisco’

Supervisor calls for hearing on ways to assess and tap into unoccupied residential units

As San Francisco continues to grapple with the lack of affordable housing, Supervisor Dean Preston is putting a spotlight on vacant units.

Preston called for a Board of Supervisors committee hearing on vacancies to take place sometime in May and for the budget analyst to issue a report on the issue.

He said that The City is largely ignoring “the single biggest source of potential housing in San Francisco.”

“Tens of thousands of units, and we don’t know how many, sit vacant,” Preston said. “How do we activate them?”

Vacant units have been a concern among city officials in previous years, but with the pandemic, vacancies have increased.

“Solving our city’s affordable housing crisis must involve tacking residential vacancies, activating as many of these units as possible and exploring policy solutions to this mushrooming problem and opportunity,” Preston said.

He said that conversation around housing has been dominated by tired talking points of “build, build, build, how many new units, how quickly can they be built, how can we incentivize building more?”

He pointed to Mayor London Breed’s state of the city address where she spoke to building 5,000 new units annually and streamlining the approval process, without touching upon vacancies.

“With the right policies, we can activate 5,000 units pretty much immediately,” Preston said.

In making the announcement, Preston noted that in 2017 Vancouver passed an “Empty Homes Tax” on units not occupied for a majority of the year. Since the tax, vacancies have decreased annually, according to Vancouver’s annual report on the levy. Revenue from the tax funded affordable housing efforts.

Preston said the pandemic changed the “profile of vacancy” of past years. “We’ve seen a significant out-migration of people from San Francisco and with that trend, a cooling of the rental market for the first time in a generation,” Preston said.

Among the questions Preston wants to answer is if the higher vacancy rate is due to landlords being unable to find tenants because people are leaving or if they are “unwilling to lower the rents to new market levels.”

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