Investors who let California homes sit vacant could face penalties

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Corporations that own California properties could soon be fined for keeping homes vacant for more than three months under a proposed law to give tenants, nonprofits and cities more say over what happens to empty buildings.

Senate Bill 1079 would allow local officials to adopt ordinances to fine "in an unspecified amount" corporations and companies that leave residential buildings vacant for more than 90 days. The money would then have to be used for "homeless diversion, rental assistance and other affordable housing purposes."

The proposal also permits cities and counties to buy or take over a company's residential property if it's been vacant for at least 90 days. The local agency would then have to maintain the home and rent it at an affordable price to "families of low or moderate income" or sell it to a community land trust or housing sponsor, according to the bill language.

Tenants would also get first dibs to buy a foreclosed property before the offer goes to a city, county or community housing group.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced the bill in response to a Bay Area activist group called Moms 4 Housing that in November took over a vacant three-bedroom home owned by a company that flips properties.

"This kind of housing crisis in California, with the number of people who are homeless, housing insecure, there's no justification for homes to be vacant," Skinner said. "My bill is designed to give local governments more tools to incentivize those corporations to actually put people in these homes and if they don't, to enable local governments, nonprofits, affordable housing developers to buy them."

Moms 4 Housing — a coalition of homeless and near-homeless mothers — illegally moved into the vacant Oakland property last year to raise awareness of vacant homes that could be used to shelter struggling residents. They were evicted from the house in January, but their advocacy for housing rights prompted the sale of the building to Oakland Community Land Trust.

"This is what happens when we organize," said group member Dominique Walker, "when people come together to build the beloved community."

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who helped stakeholders hash out the deal, said the movement marked "huge wins in our fight to address the humanitarian crisis of homelessness."

Skinner announced the proposal just before Gov. Gavin Newsom gave his second State of the State address on Wednesday, which he devoted almost completely to homelessness.

Newsom said during his speech that the issue was "the most pernicious crisis in our midst" and urged lawmakers to double down on solutions to mitigate the ballooning homeless population.

There are more than 150,000 homeless Californians, a stunning statistic that every region in the state now faces. Homelessness surged 12% in Los Angeles County from 2018, 17% in the city of San Francisco and 19% in Sacramento County since 2017, despite budgetary and legislative support to slow its growth.

Newsom in his speech indicates support for a statewide expansion of an L.A. law he signed last year to exempt supportive housing projects and shelters from rigorous environmental review, and said health care and housing should go hand in hand. His January budget proposal also includes $750 million for housing initiatives.

There are more than 1 million vacant units in California, according to 2017 U.S. Census Data, the most recent available. That number is different than rental vacancy rates, which capture empty rental units and can be quite low in cities like San Francisco that experience more demand than supply. Skinner's bill targets vacant, off-the-market properties.

Skinner said her bill would help support other steps the state has taken to protect tenants, like a new law to limit rent increases and evictions.

"There is no excuse for a vacant home when so many of our neighbors are homeless," she said. "And helping tenants buy foreclosed homes rather than be evicted will keep people housed."

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