Four Los Angeles councilmen Tuesday proposed a 2020 ballot measure that would allow the city to penalize property owners who leave housing units vacant, which they say contributes to a lack of affordable housing and exacerbates the homelessness problem.
"This measure simply says, if you want to have a housing unit in this city while we are in this (housing) crisis, and you insist on keeping it vacant, you're going to participate in helping us solve this problem, and you're going to do it in a financial way," Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said.
A motion introduced by Harris-Dawson along with Councilmen Mike Bonin, David Ryu and Paul Koretz calls on city staff to explore various options for assessing penalties against property owners who leave units vacant, and to investigate how such laws have been applied in other cities. The council would then review the options and craft a ballot measure to put before voters.
The motions also asks for a report on the number of vacant, habitable housing units throughout Los Angeles.
The councilmen said unoccupied properties take away space that could be used for affordable housing.
"Investors who keep housing units vacant are letting their greed contribute to a humanitarian crisis on our streets," Bonin said. "Housing is a human right, and we have a responsibility to make sure landlords are filling every available housing unit and getting people off the streets for good."
The proposal comes a week after the release of numbers showing the city's homeless population rose 16% over the past year, reaching more than 36,000. The county's population rose 12%, to more than 59,000.
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"Los Angeles is facing a historic housing crisis," said Leonora Camner, the managing director of Abundant Housing LA. "Rising rents spurred by a growing housing shortage have come to a head, leading to disastrous effects for Angelenos. The tragic recent L.A. County homeless count results released last week show that the challenge of homelessness in Los Angeles continues to get worse, with no signs of slowing down."
The money raised by penalties against property owners in the proposed measure would be used to build more affordable housing, officials said. Because the measure would be a revenue-generating penalty, subject to the state's Proposition 218, it must be placed on the ballot, and it would need approval of two-thirds of voters, according to city officials.
"It's been done differently in different cities, some have done just residential and some have done commercial," Bonin said. "There's a range of options we can look at."
The methods of enforcing such laws still needs to be discussed, Bonin said. He said cities that have implemented similar laws adopted provisions such as a 60-day vacancy limit, while allowing for hardship exemptions during major renovations when the unit is not habitable.
"The biggest question is what the penalty will be because you need it to be enough of a disincentive to keeping the unit vacant," Bonin said.
According to figures presented by the council members, there are roughly 111,810 housing units in the Los Angeles that are vacant, per census data from 2017.