Measure M aims to help solve the problem of empty houses and apartments by charging landlords an annual tax of $3,000 on vacant dwellings, rising to $6,000 in the second year. Owners of multiple units would pay twice that.

However, this measure is so broad it taxes some who are not landlords, not property speculators and have not abandoned their homes. Those people are owners of second homes, who, by definition, are there less than half the year. Taxing them will not help solve the area-wide problem of empty dwellings.

The Empty Homes Tax covers residential units vacant for more than 182 days in a calendar year, whether consecutive or non-consecutive, as you can see in Section 7.54.040 (A)

The tax exemptions in Section 7.54.060 do not cover second homes, whether or not they are in the city rental registry. 

The City Council may alter Measure M by a majority, but it cannot expand exemptions to include second homes or change the amount of the tax, as per Section 7.54.040(I).

If this passes, owners of second homes are stuck. 

The measure purports both to raise funds, which can only happen to the extent dwellings are empty, and at the same time help to solve the housing problem, which will diminish any revenues. It cannot do both simultaneously with any success. 

My wife and I purchased a condo 14 years ago as our primary home but had to leave California because of work. We kept our condo because we have grandchildren in Berkeley and come back to see them as often as possible, which is less than six months a year. We would be subject to the annual tax of $3,000 the first year, $6,000 the next, and even more after that because of inflation adjustments. 

If one of the aims of Measure M is to tax owners of second homes like ourselves, then that is not clear to the more than 20 voters with whom I have spoken. They all supported Proposition M, and none knew it would hit owners of second homes. Most were sympathetic and expressed the belief we were exempt. We are not.

I emailed City Councilmember Kate Harrison, author of Measure M, asking if she intended to include owners of second homes. She replied that our place would be subject to the tax if not rented. At the same time, she failed to explain how this would help solve the housing problem.

If we rent out our place in Berkeley, we will still need somewhere to live and will buy or rent in an adjacent jurisdiction. That housing swap may cost us money but will do nothing to solve the area’s housing shortage.

So I ask: Why does Councilmember Harrison propose taxing second homes, and how will that make more housing available in the area? 

The proponents are well-meaning, but Measure M was hastily drawn, sloppy, and ill-conceived, which will cause collateral damage. Measure M deserves your “No” vote.

David Lawsky lived in Berkeley in 1964 as a Cal student. He and his wife live in Chicago. He was a reporter most of his career, starting at KPFA and later working two decades for Reuters in Washington, Brussels and San Francisco.

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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