While Berkeley has both a housing shortage and high rents, hundreds of housing units have been sitting vacant for more than two years. These units could provide needed housing now for families and students alike. Even worse, these vacant units impose costs on our neighbors and the city through blight, graffiti and fire hazards.


In my neighborhood alone, a 15-unit apartment building surrounded by a chain-link fence has sat vacant for the last 20 years.

Measure M, the Vacancy Tax, is a very simple proposal. It would tax these vacant units, generating between $4 million to $6 million per year in revenues to fund affordable housing and other city needs. Even at this level, the tax would likely only partially offset the various tax write-offs and deductions real estate enjoys, benefits enhanced by former President Trump’s changes to the tax code.

Even more important, the vacancy tax provides a strong incentive for property owners to put these units back on the market and rent them, turning vacant and blighted properties into homes for Berkeley residents. If only 1/4th of these units are returned to the market (a reasonable figure given Vancouver’s experience), approximately 200 units could be available soon. By comparison, it can take three to four years to bring new housing on line.

One reason for these vacant units is the growing speculation in real estate by corporations and other investors who are more likely to keep units off the market, making it more difficult for Berkeley residents to reach the American dream of an affordable and welcoming home. Those who seek to benefit from the housing crisis should be required to contribute to its solution.

Measure M is family-friendly with exemptions for a family’s primary residence and owner-occupied buildings of four units or less. As a result, families are guaranteed to keep a vacant unit open for a child returning from college, house a caregiver as they grow old, or keep an empty unit for use by the owner or family members. The tax would be phased in, starting in 2024, giving owners time to rent out their units, with possible extensions to deal with probate issues, permits, and necessary repairs. The level of the tax would double in 2025 to further encourage owners to rent their properties.

The Vacancy Tax builds off of successful programs in Vancouver and Oakland. San Francisco also has a proposed vacancy tax on its November ballot. The win-win nature of Measure M — the Vacancy Tax proposal – more housing, more revenue, and less blight has resulted in a broad range of support that spans the political spectrum of housing policy in Berkeley.

Supporters of the proposal include the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, Cal Berkeley Democrats, Berkeley Tenants’ Union, the Wellstone Club, the Berkeley Democratic Caucus and Telegraph for People. Please join us in making more homes available in Berkeley.

Kate Harrison is Berkeley’s vice-mayor and council member for District 4. She focuses on affordable housing, combating climate change, and better budgeting for Berkeley. She is the author of Measure M.

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail in Alameda County is Oct. 24, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. We put together a guide to the essentials of how to register and vote, what’s on the ballot, voters’ rights and more.

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