How many vacant houses are there really in the Bay Area?

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There's a home on South Jackson Avenue in San Jose's Mayfair neighborhood that has it all: excellent location within walking distance of a school, parks and shops; a nearly acre-sized backyard; and, a rarity in California, a basement.

But for at least a decade it has sat unoccupied, one of an estimated 46,000 such homes in the five-county Bay Area. It's a surprising number in a region beset by a crippling housing shortage and a ballooning number of homeless residents, where vacant housing has become the latest flashpoint in an ongoing crisis.

This estimated total comes from new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in December. The bureau's data is the best available, even though it includes some newly built homes that are not yet occupied. That makes it hard to know how many landlords are intentionally leaving houses vacant, although activists say even one empty home is too many.

"They're allowing their homes to sit there empty in the midst of the biggest humanitarian crisis we've seen of this kind in the United States," said Needa Bee, an Oakland-based advocate for homeless residents' rights.

In Oakland, the number of vacant homes became one of the rallying cries for Moms 4 Housing, an activist group that took over an empty home in West Oakland in November. The group said there were four vacant homes for every homeless resident in the city. That would be about 16,000. The census data estimates far fewer, just under 6,000, but still enough to house all of Oakland's roughly 4,000 homeless residents.

Based on the new census data, San Francisco has the most vacant homes in the five-county Bay Area at 11,760. It's followed by Oakland at 5,898 and San Jose with 3,985. After that, Berkeley has 1,738 vacant homes and Richmond has 1,560. The margin of error in most other cities is too high for the data, which is based on a five-year aggregate of numbers compiled from 2014-2018, to be reliable.

There are an additional 21,788 seasonal or occasional-use houses in the Bay Area; think weekend homes or beach cottages. Of those, 8,523 are in San Francisco, 1,337 are in San Jose and 1,060 are in Fremont. It's not clear how the census data accounts for Airbnb properties and other similar, short-term rentals.

Despite the big numbers, relatively few of the 2.3 million homes in the five-county Bay Area are empty. Counties in the region have some of the lowest vacancy rates in the state, although adding 46,000 homes to the market could likely help many residents struggling to find a place to live.

Other efforts to count vacant properties in the Bay Area have had mixed results. Oakland voters last year approved a tax on vacant properties, with the proceeds funding homeless services, affordable housing and anti-dumping programs. Recently, the city halved the tax to $3,000 for most affected owners.

The goal is to go after companies "that hoard tons of property and then have it blighted throughout West Oakland, East Oakland, North Oakland," said Bobbi Lopez, policy director to City Council President Rebecca Kaplan.

But one of the challenges is determining which properties are vacant. Officials sent notices about the tax to every property owner whose mailing address is different from his or her property's physical address. That would include anyone who is renting out a home. City staffers are assuming owners whose properties are not vacant will let them know.

The city estimates there are 4,366 vacant parcels in Oakland, an inexact count that comes from the Alameda County Assessor's Office and includes only parcels that are truly vacant land, not homes that are sitting empty.

In San Jose, city staff estimate there are just 518 vacant parcels, of which 230 are residential.

All that counting still leaves the question of why anyone would leave a home empty in one of the country's hottest real estate markets, particularly when they still have to pay property taxes on it. Even experts and long-time observers have trouble answering that one.

Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone said he can't remember hearing about an empty home in the county in the past decade. If there is one, he said, he'd love to buy it.

"You can rent them for $5,000 to $8,000 a month," Stone said. "So why would anybody keep one vacant?"

Joshua Howard, executive vice president of the California Apartment Association, agrees it's not ideal.

"Rental housing providers do not like keeping units vacant. They're in the business of providing housing, and every month with a vacancy is a month without rental income," he wrote in an emailed statement.

Sometimes landlords have big plans for vacant properties that take a long time to implement.

When 65-year-old Larry Glenn inherited his aunt's home on West Oakland's Adeline Street in 2008, the property needed a ton of work. Everything from the plumbing to the front steps was going bad, he said. Now, the house is boarded up and covered in graffiti. No one has lived there in more than a decade.

Glenn said people have been practically banging down his door to get him to sell the house, which has been in his family since the 1960s. He did put it up for sale with an asking price of $988,000 just in case someone is willing to make an enormous offer. But he doesn't really want to sell.

Instead, he plans to build five units of housing on the lot. The city granted preliminary approval in 2017, and renewed the approval last month. Glenn still needs to apply for a building permit, but he said he has a lead on funding and hopes to break ground in February.

"It's exciting," Glenn said, "and it's been a long time coming."

Glenn said he didn't feel a responsibility to just sell the house as soon as possible in the name of fixing the housing and homelessness crisis. "It is the city of Oakland's issue, with the homeless and all of the stuff that you see," Glenn said. "I have nothing to do with that."

The Jackson Avenue home in San Jose has also sat empty for at least a decade. Not even the owners know for sure when anyone last lived there, at least not legally. Dirty curtains and sheets cover the broken windows, and broken doors at the back entrance and a nearby shed hint at squatters.

Angelica Flores, a volunteer with the nonprofit SOMOS Mayfair who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years, said it's a shame to see a house sit empty.

"I always dreamed, if I could buy something, this is definitely a place I would like to," Flores said.

Like the Oakland property that Glenn owns, this one is also slated for development. Lisa Wissmath, the property owner's daughter and Realtor, said she expects the sale to be finalized by April, nearly two and a half years after negotiations began.

Wissmath said her mother's family has owned land in the South Bay since 1902. They bought the Jackson Street home after they were released from a World War II Japanese internment camp.

Wissmath said they decided to get the property entitled, meaning it has legal permits to be developed, because it was more valuable that way even though it made the sale more complicated. She declined to name the final sales price, citing a nondisclosure agreement with the purchaser, but said it was close to the $2.2 million listing price.

Wissmath did not disclose the buyer, but records from the San Jose planning department list Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley as the owner.

"We intend to develop the land into 14 mixed-incomes, condo-style homes, creating new homeownership opportunities for 14 families with limited incomes," Erin Spaulding, a spokeswoman with the nonprofit, said in an emailed statement.

In the meantime, the Wissmaths, now in San Diego County, frequently get calls from neighbors warning them that people are squatting in the property. "We end up calling the police," she said. "The police, at this point, they're over it, which I get."

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