Prop M
Vacant Homes
Empty Homes Tax

Taxes apartments that have been vacant for longer than six months.

Vote NO

Jump to SPUR’s Recommendation

What the Measure Would Do

Proposition M would create a progressive tax on apartments that have been vacant for longer than 182 days within a tax year. The tax would be bigger for larger apartments and would increase based on the length of vacancy.

Proposed Tax on Vacant Apartments Would Increase Over Time


Vacant for one year

Vacant for two consecutive years

Vacant for three consecutive years or more

Less than 1,000 square feet




From 1,000 to 2,000 square feet




Over 3,000 square feet





The tax would not apply to homes that are owned by nonprofit organizations or governmental entities. Additionally, the measure would exempt units in buildings of two units or fewer. The measure also would not apply to condominium units where the owner receives a homeownership exemption. Prop. M would include exemptions for disasters, for an owner’s death and for construction periods, including a one-year period after a new building completes construction.

The measure would not exempt below-market-rate units in market-rate buildings. Developers typically work with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development on leasing those units, often involving a lengthy leasing process.

All owners of apartments potentially subject to the tax would be required to file a form with the Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector to affirm whether the unit was vacant for more than 182 days. If the owner fails to file the form, the unit would be presumed to be vacant and the tax would apply.

Any funds collected from vacant unit taxes, after paying for the administration of the tax, would be placed in a Housing Activation Fund. This fund could be used for:

  • Rental subsidies for people ages 60 and older and for people earning less than 50% of the area median income.
  • For the acquisition and rehabilitation of apartment buildings where one-third of the units are vacant and the building is restricted to households earning less than 80% of the area median income.

The Backstory

For years, policymakers have been discussing the issue of vacant units in San Francisco. Some housing advocates assert that homes are being purchased as investment properties and then held off the market. However, it is difficult to determine how many units are truly vacant in San Francisco and even harder to uncover the reason why those units are vacant.

SPUR’s 2014 report Non-Primary Residences and San Francisco’s Housing Market[1] attempted to quantify the number of homes that were left vacant by owners. While roughly 30,000 units were vacant, only 9,000 of those units were vacant for “seasonal, recreational or occasional use” (typically non-primary residences or short-term rentals) as opposed to being vacant as part of the process of being re-rented or sold. In 2022, at the request of Supervisor Dean Preston, the city’s budget and legislative analyst produced a report looking at residential vacancies in San Francisco.[2] Relying on 2019 census data,[3] this report found that roughly 40,000 units were vacant. However, of those vacancies, only 8,500 were vacant for “seasonal, recreational or occasional use.” Notably, 8,000 units were in the “sold, not occupied” category, as opposed to 900 units in that same category in SPUR’s 2014 report.

While it is unclear why the number of “sold, not occupied” units has grown so dramatically, the budget and legislative analyst’s report asserts that this category may contain units that have been purchased in buildings under construction and/or may contain units that have been purchased for investment purposes only.

Vacant Units in San Francisco County, 2019

Vacant Unit Category

2019 Estimate (Number of units)

2019 Estimate (Percentage of all vacant units)


For rent



Vacant units offered for rent and vacant units listed for sale

Rented, not occupied



Vacant units that have been rented (i.e., compensation has been paid or agreed upon) but the renter has not yet moved in

For sale only



Vacant units offered for sale only (i.e., not including vacant units that are listed for sale or for rent)

Sold, not occupied



Vacant units that have been sold but the new owner has not yet moved in

Seasonal, recreational or occasional use



Vacant units used or intended to be used part-time or occasionally throughout the year; includes second or non-primary housing units and timeshares

Other vacant



Vacant units that don’t fall into any of the categories above; may include units held vacant for personal or family reasons, units requiring or undergoing repair, corporate housing, units held for use by a caretaker or janitor, units subject to legal proceedings, etc.





Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey (one-year estimates, Table B25004); U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey Subject Definitions


Proponents of Prop. M argue that the majority of vacant units in San Francisco are concentrated in areas with a high degree of new multifamily construction, including Downtown, SoMa and Mission Bay, and therefore that vacancies are correlated with this construction. While it is true that many of the vacant units are located in these areas, other neighborhoods with high concentrations of vacant units in the “sold but not occupied” category — including Sunset/Parkside, Noe Valley, Castro and Upper Market, West of Twin Peaks and the Sunset — contain many single-family or two-unit homes and limited new multifamily construction.[4]

Proponents of this measure hope that it would curb speculation in the housing market, making it more challenging for investors to purchase properties and hold them off the market. A similar measure in Vancouver has resulted in many units returning to active use. In 2016, Vancouver instituted a vacancy tax of 1.25% of assessed property value. The tax reduced the vacancy rate from 4.3% to 3.1% and returned roughly 1,900 units to the market between 2018 and 2019.[5] This represents a 21.2% reduction in vacant units in the first year of the tax, followed by an additional 3.5% the following year. Vancouver’s tax also generated $21.3 million in new revenue for affordable housing in 2019.[6] However, Vancouver found that there were far fewer vacant units than policymakers expected and that the tax did not have an impact on housing costs.[7]

The budget and legislative analyst estimates that a similar vacancy tax in San Francisco could generate between $12.2 million and $61.2 million per year in revenues for affordable housing.[8]

While the proposed San Francisco measure is a dedicated tax, it was placed on the ballot by signature collection and therefore requires only a simple majority (50% plus one vote) to pass. It can be amended by a two-thirds vote of the Board of Supervisors without further voter approval.

Equity Impacts

A well-functioning housing market benefits everyone, but it particularly benefits lower-income families, who can’t compete with wealthier households for scarce housing units. Measures that help create more housing options can reduce the cost of housing and make housing more available. Moreover, white households are more likely than Black or Latinx households to own homes,[9] and therefore the tax would likely be paid by a higher proportion of white, upper-income households. The Housing Activation Fund would be used to provide rental subsidies for very low-income households and to purchase properties and convert them to permanent affordable housing, furthering the impacts to lower-income households.


  • Vacancy taxes can encourage property owners to rent their properties, potentially helping to alleviate the housing shortage in San Francisco.
  • This vacancy tax would provide needed affordable housing subsidies for low-income households.


  • One- and two-unit buildings are not included in this measure, but vacant single-family homes also impact the housing market and should be taxed. Moreover, because single-family homes and two-unit buildings would be exempt from the tax, they would not be required to file returns with the city tax collector. Therefore, no vacancy data would be collected on these properties to inform future policymaking.
  • This measure might discourage new housing construction because the exemption for new construction would not last long enough to cover the extensive leasing period of a large multi-unit building. Additionally, the measure would not exempt below-market-rate units, which might be more difficult to lease.
  • It is not clear why the measure would fund certain types of affordable housing uses over others. For example, funds could cover rental subsidies for people 60 and older who are not low-income. Additionally, funds could be used for the acquisition of housing, but that housing would have to be one-third vacant.
SPUR's Recommendation

SPUR wrestled with this measure. Our Regional Strategy calls for the creation of a regional vacancy tax as one element of our anti-displacement agenda.[10] Vacant units do contribute to the tightening of the housing market and are undesirable in cities experiencing a housing shortage. The number of vacant units in San Francisco has increased over the past decade, particularly in the “sold, not occupied category,” which suggests that some of these units are being held off the market as investment properties. From a policy perspective, taxing these units in order to encourage them to be put into active use makes good sense, and SPUR admires the program in Vancouver that serves as a model for this measure.

Unfortunately, Measure M has many flaws. SPUR disagrees that taxation on vacant units should be limited to apartments and that single-family homes do not require taxation. We would have preferred a more fairly applied universal vacancy tax where all vacant units, regardless of building size, are taxed. We are concerned that the new construction exemption might be insufficient to cover the lease-up time for larger buildings, which is particularly problematic because it might discourage new housing at a time when so few new homes are being built in San Francisco.[11] And we believe the measure should exempt below-market-rate units, which can be challenging to rent.

While SPUR does support the concept of a vacancy tax and finds the mechanism for administering this tax to be appropriate, this is not the particular vacant unit tax that we would prefer to see on the ballot.

Vote NO on Prop M - Vacant Homes

[1] Sarah Karlinsky and Kristy Wang, Non-Primary Residences and San Francisco’s Housing Market, SPUR, October 21, 2014, https://www.spur.org/sites/default/files/2014-10/SPUR_Non-Primary_Residences.pdf.

[2] San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst, Residential Vacancies in San Francisco, January 31, 2022, https://sfbos.org/sites/default/files/BLA.Residential%20Vacancies.013122_final.pdf.

[3] Although 2020 and 2021 census data was available, it was purposefully excluded from the BLA study for a variety of reasons, including that the impacts of COVID-19 on the ability to collect accurate data are not yet fully understood.

[4] See note 2, page 30.

[5] See note 2, page 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Emily Cadman and Natalie O. Pearson, “Taxing Rich People’s Empty Homes Isn’t Helping the Housing Crisis,” Bloomberg, August 15, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2021-08-16/taxing-the-rich-do-housing-prices-fall-when-empty-second-homes-are-taxed.

[8] See note 2.

[9] Bay Area Equity Atlas, “Homeownership Is Unattainable for Most Bay Area Black, Latinx, Cambodian and Pacific Islander Households,” September 24, 2021, https://bayareaequityatlas.org/node/65531.


[10] Kristy Wang and Sarah Karlinsky, Rooted and Growing, SPUR, April 2021, page 26, https://www.spur.org/sites/default/files/2021-05/SPUR_Rooted_And_Growing_Report.pdf.

[11] J. K. Dineen, “San Francisco Housing Development Has Slowed to a Crawl, With No Uptick in Sight,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 2022, https://www.sfchronicle.com/sf/article/housing-development-cost-price-residential-17264782.php.