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When do the needs of the government transcend private property rights? Can the government tell you what to do with your private property? Recently some cities have looked at a vacancy tax on empty lots and commercial spaces. The idea is to incentivize property owners to build additional housing and/or rent out vacant store fronts. Last November, the city of Oakland approved its version of a vacancy tax by 70% of the vote. This tax applies to any privately owned property in the city, including residential, commercial and empty lot that is not “in use” for more than 50 days in a calendar year beginning 2019.

The Oakland vacancy tax will be $6,000 per parcel, per year for most properties, regardless of size or value. The tax for condominium or duplex units or ground-floor commercial space is $3,000 per parcel, per year. This vacancy tax will be added to their annual property tax bills and will continue for up to 20 years. The tax will be used for homeless services and affordable housing.

Besides Oakland, the cities of Vancouver, British Columbia; Paris, France; and Washington, D.C., have approved some form of a vacancy tax. The cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles are proposing taking this issue to the voters. I’ve heard Eureka and Arcata have also been mulling about this issue, although here in Humboldt County we don’t have the rampant real estate speculation like other urban areas with massive price increases. Then again we don’t have 20 million people living in an area the geographic size of Humboldt County.

Drive around Eureka and you’ll notice an empty lot here, there, everywhere. Some of them are the former Floyd Squires rental buildings that got demolished by the city. However nothing has gone up in their place to replace the housing stock lost. In Old Town we have the Ritz (on the corner of 3rd and F Streets) which should be the best bar north of San Francisco. Instead it’s been vacant for the past four years as the owner thinks he sets the lease prices, not the market.

The largest owner of vacant lots in the city of Eureka is the city of Eureka. I’m waiting for someone on the City Council to be proactive and get the city staff to issue RFPs (Request For Proposals) for the vacant lots on the waterfront as we need additional jobs and tax revenues. The city could also partner with a non-profit to build and manage new affordable housing units on their current empty lots. It would be nice of the city would tell us their master plan for developing all their current vacant land.

Think of the former Downtowner, now “The Lodge” on E Street between 8th and 7th streets. This former blighted building is now an affordable housing project that was filled up in days and now has a waiting list for new tenants. Drive by the new Danco veteran’s project going up on 4th Street. When completed, the same thing will happen. I heard rumors of someone buying the old Budget Motel, now the “Humboldt Inn” on 4th Street and partnering with the County to place tenants with Social Security or SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) coupled with Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly HUD-Section 8). Many landlords won’t accept Housing Vouchers mainly because of the Fair Market Rents (you can’t charge more rent then the government allows per geographic area) and the rent control in the language, which is sad because most landlords don’t understand the benefits and guarantees Housing Vouchers gives them, not the tenants.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t read about a housing shortage, especially affordable housing in some city across our nation. In your neighborhood, how many homes are vacant or lots are undeveloped? Heck, one person who formerly ran for Eureka City Council owns two entire city blocks in the middle of town where a whole lot more housing units could be built.

The question comes down to private property rights versus the needs of a community. In the case of Floyd Squires’ properties, the city after decades of legal maneuvering finally said “enough” and evicted his tenants and bulldozed some of his properties. Extreme, yes. An abuse of government powers? The courts will decide. Can the government tell you, “Hey Mr. Property Owner, we want you to develop your vacant lot or else”?

Matthew Owen resides in Eureka.

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