Ten Fifty B, an affordable housing high-rise downtown. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

The San Diego Housing Commission is looking to combat the region’s housing crisis by taxing owners of vacant apartments.

At a Friday meeting of the agency’s board of directors, Stefanie Benvenuto, the board’s chairwoman, asked staff to study a potential vacancy tax.

The city has a low reported vacancy rate, as expected in a market where demand is high. But Benvenuto said she wanted to see whether the city’s vacancies were actually higher than reported, with units kept off the market as investment properties, second homes or for short-term vacation rentals.

“People see downtown buildings that are dark at night,” she said in an interview. “I can appreciate that we have a low vacancy rate, but I want to know what our vacancy rate is in practice.”

The request comes days after the Los Angeles City Council raised the prospect of a 2020 ballot measure to penalize property owners who let homes sit empty.

Like any tax or fee, a vacancy tax could prove controversial. But a vacancy tax, unlike other ways of funding low-income housing, has the benefit of doing two things at once. Property owners could avoid the fee by renting out their unoccupied homes — returning them to the market so people can live in them — or they can pay the fee, generating revenue for low-income housing programs.

Benvenuto requested a study of units that have been vacant for six months or longer, meaning it wouldn’t apply to routine vacancies between when someone moves out and someone else moves in. The study wouldn’t just inform a potential policy; it would be a legal necessity before the city could adopt anything. By law, the city needs to draw a connection between the thing it is levying a fee against and whatever that money is spent on.

“Until I know whether it’s worth talking about this more, I don’t know what a policy would be,” Benvenuto said. “If we get information that says this would make things worse for renters and would-be home-buyers, I would not pursue it.”

During the meeting, Ryan Clumpner, another Housing Commission board member, cited the need for the study and referenced Vancouver, British Columbia, where a similar fee brought in $38 million for housing programs in its first year.

“If someone from another city wants to own a condo here and visit a couple months out of the year, I welcome them, I think that’s fantastic,” Clumpner said. “But they should also be willing to chip in to offset the impact they have on the cost of housing in this city. Every dollar they contribute is a dollar less that has to come from us and our neighbors.”

A Promised Opposition for Future Tax Increases

Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, appears on KPBS Evening Edition May 7. / Photo courtesy of KPBS

There’s a high bar for tax increases in California. For increases spent on specific purposes, two-thirds of voters need to sign off. In practice, that’s generally meant that any form of organized or well-financed opposition can sink a tax measure.

Well, a group of non-union contractors is now promising opposition to any tax increase in San Diego that carries with it a union-friendly contract, known as a project labor agreement.

A coalition of elected officials, including San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones and advocacy groups led by non-union contractors, is announcing their demands next week. The group aims to raise $100,000 to campaign against any tax measure that includes a project labor agreement.

There are three measures already headed to the ballot in 2020 or hoping to do so that could be in trouble if financed opposition materializes. One is the city’s measure to raise hotel taxes to expand the Convention Center. The Metropolitan Transit System is also pursuing a measure to raise sales taxes to expand transit. The San Diego Housing Federation, a nonprofit advocacy group, is looking to pass a bond to build homes for low-income residents.

Now, each could be between a rock and a hard place: They could all be imperiled by an organized opposition with money to spend. But each could just as easily find passing a measure without the support of organized labor nearly impossible as well.

“All of these measures require voter approval and any opposition to any of them means their defeat,” said Eric Christen, director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.

Changes Coming at the Campaign to Expand the Convention Center

Stephen Puetz, former chief of staff to the mayor, is now a consultant. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

We heard some new faces are joining the team pushing a ballot measure next year to raise hotel taxes for a convention center expansion, homelessness programs and road repairs. Namely, we’d heard consultants from the firm Axiom Strategies, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s former chief of staff Stephen Puetz, are joining the effort.

We reached out to the rest of the team and the results were … inconclusive.

They confirmed that something is changing, but wouldn’t confirm that Axiom is on board. Puetz did not respond to a request for comment.

“Now that the initiative has been placed on the ballot, we’re putting together a great bipartisan team to run a winning citywide campaign this March.  We’re looking forward to formally kicking off our campaign soon and updating you then,” said Keith Maddox, executive secretary and treasurer at the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, in a written statement.

Chris Wahl, president of Southwest Strategies, which has been part of the effort for months, said the same.

“The coalition is working on bringing on a full campaign team for March as we had planned to do all along,” Wahl wrote in an email.

Toni Atkins on Leadership

Toni Atkins
State Sen. Toni Atkins / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

At the LEAD San Diego annual Visionary Awards, June 6, a diverse group of community leaders got deserved recognition. Journalists got a shout-out for their value to the community. (All events are better when they include praise for journalists, in our humble opinion.)

But LEAD’s thing is leadership. It’s the name and all. To speak about that, the Chamber invited state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins. (Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who gave a notoriously unfriendly speech to the Chamber a few months ago, was not there.)

Atkins is one of the highest-ranking elected leaders of one of the largest governments in the world. But she has faced criticism for how she has used that power, or not used it. For Atkins, who identifies as a leader on housing policy, recent barbs from housing advocates must have been especially tough after she refused to save SB 50 from a committee chair’s decision to scuttle the reform.

Her speech provided an insight into how she thinks about leadership. She decided to focus on several words that define her perspective on leading. One stood out to us: restraint.

She said:

“The words that matter to me are: responsibility, intentionality, focus, passion. If you’re not passionate about what you do, you will never be a great leader at that thing because people, we all are drawn to authenticity.

“That’s a good word today. It has made a comeback and people crave it. Passion to do that work. And one word — I asked someone recently who had grown up in Apartheid Africa, South Africa, and as we saw the exit of a president and the entry of another one, I was asking him about African-American leaders, and his thoughts on that. And he talked a lot about President Obama and I said, ‘What do you think his greatest leadership skill was?’ And he said, ‘restraint.’ And I thought that was a really interesting word. We served at a time at city hall when there needed to be a little restraint by some individuals.”

School Board Member Finally Has to Run, Labor Won’t Be United

Richard Barrera
San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Richard Barrera has been elected to the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education three times and never faced an opponent. That won’t be the case in 2020. Teacher Patrick MacFarland announced he is running for the seat. In June 2018, MacFarland lost a race for Chula Vista City Council in the district that ultimately went to Jill Galvez.

MacFarland was one of four men to accuse another school board member, Kevin Beiser, of sexual assault or harassment.

The Labor Council could see some interesting internal debate about this one. On the one hand, Barrera will undoubtedly have the support of the teachers union, the San Diego Education Association. And Barrera used to run the Labor Council. On the other hand, he then became a top leader in the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which had a bitter split with the Labor Council.

Now the UFCW is back in the Labor Council after an insurgent group ousted both Barrera and longtime leader Mickey Kasparian. The new leader of UFCW, Todd Walters, has been a fierce critic of Barrera and could make it hard for the Labor Council to support the incumbent.

In 2016, our Mario Koran did a fascinating profile of Barrera.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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