As vacant property tax vote nears, residents debate effectiveness
on September 9, 2018
Almost everyone in Richmond agrees homelessness and vacant properties are big problems. But there is disagreement in Richmond about whether a new tax is the best solution.
The tax on vacant property would go toward improving services for the homeless and enhancing code enforcement in a city in which hundreds sleep on the street every night and illegal dumping is rampant. The Richmond City Council voted unanimously in August to put the tax on the ballot, but residents appear divided on the merits of the solution.
Inspired by Oakland’s 2018 measure, the tax would impose annual fees of up to $6,000 on vacant lots and $3,000 on vacant buildings. Seventy-five percent of the estimated $5 million in tax revenue would go towards homeless services, and the remaining 25 percent for better code enforcement. The maximum tax is set in stone but the tax rate for each vacant property is at the discretion of the City.
Mayor Tom Butt called his proposed tax an effort by the city to finally “do something significant for our homeless population.”
Blight, unoccupied properties and homelessness are issues that are “underfunded and under addressed,” according to an August memo from Butt. The memo reports there are currently between 980 and 1,180 vacant parcels and 250 vacant buildings in Richmond.
Jim Becker, president and chief executive of Richmond Community Foundation, a non-profit that helps renovate and sell abandoned homes to low and moderate-income first-time homebuyers, says the city’s code enforcement office manages about 150 abandoned single-family homes at any given time.
Becker hasn’t come out with a public position on the tax but strongly supports restoring and occupying abandoned homes.
“These properties end up just sitting and becoming a real problem in the community,” Becker said.
A rudimentary count of unsheltered people in Richmond suggests homelessness is on the rise. The Contra Costa Council on Homelessness counted 270 unsheltered people in Richmond in 2018, more than double the 109 found on the streets in 2017. This rough estimate is solely based on the point-in-time count of unsheltered people in Richmond and likely misses many of the homeless people in the city.
Rosemary Corbin, the former mayor and a long-time resident of Richmond, says she supports the tax as a way to confront homelessness head-on with the help of vacant property owners.
“We must solve the homeless problem, and asking well-to-do property owners to contribute their fair share to the solution makes sense,” Corbin wrote in an email. “It hit me hard when I found out that the valedictorian of my high school class was homeless. It’s a problem for all of us to solve.”
Sandy Tarbet, a resident of Richmond since 1983, believes Richmond should address homelessness but isn’t sure penalizing property owners is the way to do it.
“I certainly do not have a vacant home by any means and would probably never have to pay this tax,” Tarbet said. “But the fact that they are making property owners responsible to solve a major social problem, I think is misguided.”
Owners of community gardens, owners of properties that are under construction or have a permit in-progress and owners that are very-low income would be exempted from the tax, as it is currently conceived.
Jeffrey Wright, a real estate broker in Contra Costa, has questions about the process after a vacant property is identified and the method of notification the owner will receive.
“They didn’t reach out to the real estate community in advance to vet [the tax],” Wright said. “There was just a rush to get this on the ballot.“
Butt acknowledges the tax was put on the ballot at the last minute without a lot of feedback from the community but says a sense of urgency led him to do so.
“You either do nothing for at least two years or you jump at the opportunity to do something significant,” Butt said.
As the election creeps closer, Butt assures voters the tax was designed to be “flexible” in order to address unanticipated consequences as they arise. He stresses that the city council has the power to change the tax rate and could lower it to “a penny if they wanted to.” He believes the tax likely won’t affect a large number of Richmond residents or voters.
But Butt understands residents have concerns.
“I’m not overly-confident that it’s going to pass, it’s probably a long-shot,” he said.
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