Vacancy rates became a point of controversy in San Francisco in recent years, with advocates for the homeless and those in danger of eviction pointing out that there are more vacant homes in the Bay Area than there are unhoused people, a statistic which is technically correct.
However, many people may not understand what a “vacant” home actually is, usually imagining that valuable properties are just sitting empty for no reason on every SF block while some faceless corporate body holds the deed.
While this kind of thing does sometimes happen, the reality is much more nuanced. Take the Richmond for example: At face value, just how many vacant homes do we have?
The San Francisco Planning Department occasionally takes an inventory of such things on a neighborhood level; by their most recent count, the Inner Richmond is about four percent vacant (a rate we’d call very low) and the outer neighborhood about eight percent (which is around what we’d expect), totaling around 2,000 vacant units.
That data, though released in 2019, only goes up through about 2016. Much more recently, the US Census estimated housing vacancy rates in 2020; although it varies across the more than 20 census tracts that cover the neighborhood, Richmond vacancy was around 7-9 percent on average, which again is about what we’d expect and comes out to around 2,400 housing empties.
The city’s most recent homeless count estimated around 8,000 unhoused persons in SF. But of course, not everyone needs an entire house to themselves, so if families and those who don’t mind a roomie or two moved in together, just the Richmond would appear to have enough vacant homes for more than half of the city’s street population.
However: “vacant” does not always mean what people think it means. For example, in the Richmond, ten to 15 percent of vacant homes are empty only because they’re on the market, seeking either new renters or buyers.
Up to 20 percent at any given time are classified as “rented or sold, not occupied,” meaning that a sale or lease has happened but for some reason the occupant has not moved in or perhaps has moved out unexpectedly or are just out of town.
As many as 40 to 50 percent are classified as “other vacant,” which sometimes these are homes which are condemned or uninhabitable, some are in the midst of renovation or retrofitting, some are actually being demolished, some are being used for some non-housing purpose, are about to come onto the market but just aren’t there yet, and for some it’s really just not clear what’s going on with them.
The final category is one that often raises ire: “occasional use.” This can mean something like, say, housing set aside for seasonal workers, but most often it’s second homes, vacation homes, short-term rentals, etc. Around a quarter or more of Richmond vacancies fall into this class.
In truth, very few homes in places like the Richmond are truly abandoned or needlessly empty, although of course people can argue about which needs are necessarily appropriate. (Many will simply never like or trust the short-term rental market.)
In a given year, the number of vacant homes that are truly going to waste in the neighborhood is likely only a few hundred or even a few dozen, although we’ll probably never get an extremely precise count.
Either way, Richmond homes are extremely valuable, so the incentive, as always, is to find tenants or buyers–as many and as fast as possible.
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