Vacancy bill targets our property rights

Leave it to California legislators to identify a real problem and then offer a “solution” that’s so misguided it will make the problem worse and undermine our fundamental rights in the process.

Their approach seems designed mainly for publicity — and to satisfy the demands of vocal community activists who don’t understand how housing markets work.

The problem is the state’s growing housing crisis. As we all know, home values and rents have become increasingly unaffordable, even in lower-income areas.

The latest response is Senate Bill 1079, which would allow city officials to fine owners of vacant houses and also use the power of eminent domain to confiscate private properties if they are empty for more than 90 days. It applies to corporations, but many mom-and-pop investors create corporate entities for investment-home purchases.

After homeless moms commandeered a vacant property in Oakland last year, Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley championed their cause. “It was totally legitimate” for them “to take over that house,” she said. Fortunately, the courts disagreed, but the owners — a property investment firm — agreed to sell the house at market rates to a community land trust.

California’s high rents are not caused by vacancies.

Owners keep houses vacant for a variety of legitimate reasons. For instance, it takes time to repair and sell a property. Some San Francisco homeowners reportedly leave properties vacant because tenant laws there make it nearly impossible to evict bad tenants. They don’t want to rent their house — and then never be able to get it back again.

This dangerous idea is catching on.

In Los Angeles, Councilman Gil Cedillo has proposed seizing a 124-unit apartment building to keep its owners from converting it to a market-rate complex. Cedillo sees it as a model to protect affordable housing across the city, but it will exacerbate housing shortages.

Such flagrant abuses of property rights will only scare away investors from providing the housing that everyone says we desperately need.

Instead of threatening owners, the Legislature needs to reduce the burdensome and costly rules that stifle housing production.


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