Op-ed: Response to critique of empty homes tax
The city of San Jose is pictured in this aerial file photo.

As the original folks who suggested San Jose look at an empty homes tax, we wanted to respond to Bob Staedler’s cursory critique of the idea.

To start, Measure E is indeed a crucial means of funding affordable housing in San Jose. We both publicly and passionately supported the measure when it came on the ballot.

We’re guessing that yes, an empty homes tax wouldn’t generate as much revenue as Measure E. But that’s not the point.

In policymaking, we don’t say, “hey, this one policy is working pretty well to address a big problem, so let’s not look at other policies that could help too.”

Especially on the housing crisis and homelessness—public policy issues that are multi-faceted, have existed for ages and are worse right now—the policy solutions aren’t as simple as some claim. And they aren’t either/or propositions. They’re often “all of the above.”

Our original proposal was quite modest, in fact. It was for city staff to study an empty homes tax—how it would work, how the revenue would be spent, etc. Understanding how an idea works and what its effects may be is part of good policy work. We do not yet have this information, nor does the city.

Yet there are policy bread crumbs we could follow. Other cities have implemented this policy, and they’ve got good data on its positive impacts. Our May 2019 presentation offered some of that evidence from Vancouver, Canada we personally compiled as community advocates. We encourage others to do the same. After all, if you’re gonna go hunting, you might want to make sure you aim first.

Another point missed: it’s not the number of empty homes in San Jose relative to other cities that matters, it’s the extent of the housing shortage here. Another overlooked fact: there are thousands and thousands of homes in San Jose just sitting there empty—excluding those being refurbished or rented during parts of the year.

Folks in economic development like Bob Staedler know it takes too much time and money to get any new affordable housing project built in our region.

Meanwhile, if there are indeed over 4,000 homes sitting empty for no good reason, imagine if we could get just one-tenth of that total number—400 homes—back onto the market for rent within a year. That’s a lot cheaper than cobbling together millions of dollars in funding and waiting half a decade for 400 new homes to open.

Here’s another key component of an empty homes tax—if you have a home you could live in or rent out, you don’t have to do so. You can pay the fee. Or you can rent out your home and voila, no tax! How many of us can choose to pay sales, property or income tax?

If the money from the tax goes to increase or preserve affordable housing as it does in other cities, then the tax addresses the same problem either way. That’s the beauty of an empty homes tax. Whether property owners pay it or not, the community can be better off.

While 6,700 San Joseans are homeless, if you have the luxury of sitting on an empty home you own in a market like Silicon Valley in which the median home price is $1.7 million—isn’t it the least you can do to contribute to solving a problem all of us want to see fixed?

Beyond the empty homes tax, there’s a broader problem concerning us. There’s a dangerous tide that’s been rising in this country for years in which the assets—including precious and valuable homes—are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few and wealthy. This concentration is shrinking the American middle class and expanding the lower class. It’s happening here in San Jose too.

A big contributor to the growing problem is private corporations snatching up houses that were once the domain of individual families in single-family homes. With their resources, these big companies can certainly keep homes off the market or jack up prices using their outsized economic muscle.

What brings these issues together—who owns the housing and what they do with it—is wealth inequality and shared prosperity. We all want a community in which anyone can afford to live. That’s the California dream. We attain that by ensuring we get every one of our neighbors into affordable homes. Let’s keep working together to take the time and energy to study and pursue policies that do that.

Huy Tran and Alex Shoor are housing advocates who sit on the San Jose Housing & Community Development Commission. They wrote this as individuals, not as commissioners or on behalf of the commission.

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