The myth of excess vacant housing distracts from solutions – San Gabriel Valley Tribune

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In November 2019, a group of activists took to the streets of Downtown Los Angeles to protest several newly-constructed apartment buildings.

These buildings, the marchers claimed, were full of vacant units just blocks away from where hundreds of people slept rough on the street. The owners of these buildings, according to a report that inspired the protest, preferred to keep their units empty rather than lower prices to accommodate less well-to-do tenants.

The problem? Those buildings were mostly full at the time.

The activists in the street that day weren’t wrong though. Los Angeles has both a surplus of space and capacity to house the approximately 41,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city.

However, that space and capacity are being wasted in suboptimal residential uses and underutilized lots across the city, not by supposedly-vacant luxury lofts. Harnessing our potential to house every Angeleno requires us as a city to rethink who gets the final say over what gets built where.

Economist Paul Krugman popularized the term “zombie ideas” to characterize “ideas that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.”

The housing world also has its own zombie ideas and perhaps none is as powerful as the notion of greedy investors sitting on swaths of vacant homes while people spend the night outdoors.

It’s an idea championed by progressives, center-leftists and Republicans alike. One can easily see the appeal of this idea: If there are so many more vacant homes than people experiencing homelessness, why not just move them into one of those vacancies?

There are, of course, a number of vacant units in any city at a given time. Yet, there are a multitude of reasons for these units to be vacant besides unscrupulous investors or rapacious landlords holding out for a better price.

In an excellent primer on vacancy levels in Los Angeles, UCLA’s Shane Phillips breaks down vacant units into two categories: market and non-market.

Market vacancies, he explains, “are the inevitable gaps in tenancy that occur when a lease is ended, a home goes on the market to be resold, or a new building opens and hasn’t yet leased or sold all its units.” As of the latest American Community Survey estimates, there were about 251,000 vacant housing units in Los Angeles County. Of these, about 118,000, or 47 percent, were market vacancies.

After market vacancies, the second largest category of vacancies in Los Angeles County are “other” vacancies, a catch-all category in the U.S. Census. There are about 102,000 such properties across LA County, representing about 41 percent of all vacancies. While some point to this latter category as proof of rampant empty investment properties, looking at the Census’ own definitions is instructive.

Foreclosed properties, condemned buildings and homes being renovated are all included in this category. While it’s possible that some homes in this category are indeed being kept off-market by an owner holding out for a larger payout down the line, given the breadth of this category it’s implausible that this category represents any meaningful part of that total number.

Rather than focusing on imaginary vacancies, advocates and policy makers could turn their attention to building the desperately-needed housing to end California’s housing crisis.

Unfortunately, the same tools wealthy segregationists use to block market-rate housing are turned towards homeless shelters, such as an instance last year when residents of Venice Beach filed a lawsuit to block construction of a transitional housing project and even placed a fake explosive device at the construction site.