Santa Ana City Council members are rethinking their tolerance for vacant buildings over the risks they pose, like fires, which infamously tore through a historic church in downtown two years ago, and most recently erupted at the old vacant Orange County Register building on Grand Avenue.

Will that mean a vacant property tax in Santa Ana, or a tightening of existing regulations in place today? 

At their regular Dec. 6 meeting, City Council members directed staff to come back with possible options on that question at a future meeting. 

“Some of the vacant lots have been here for years and years and years and haven’t really been addressed,” said Councilmember Jessie Lopez, who brought the issue up for discussion.

Lopez, growing particularly sick of the empty building at 17th Street and Grand Avenue in her ward, said such properties tend to drive up calls for city service.

“We need to do our best to reach out to property owners that live in Texas, other parts of the state — some of them are not being responsive to us,” Lopez said. 

She also proposed sending the issue to voters.

“We need to look at how we can ask the residents, hopefully in 2024, to approve some sort of parcel or vacancy tax to encourage folks to do something with vacant lots and buildings here in Santa Ana,” Lopez said. 

A number of California cities have probed the idea in some form or another, but in San Francisco, voters approved it this past November, with the tax set to take effect in the city in 2024, ranging anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 in the first year, depending on the property size.

Berkeley voters passed a similar ballot measure as well. 

In both cities, supporters said a reduction in vacancies would mean more housing, and cited what’s become a common sight throughout the state: Cities with a plethora of empty homes and homeless people on the street.

Revenue from the tax in San Francisco, for instance, is expected to fund rental subsidies and affordable housing. 

Opponents to the city’s measure, like the San Francisco Apartment Association, argued the tax constituted government overreach and would punish landlords for what could be extenuating circumstances behind their property’s vacancy, like caring for a family member or hospitalization.

The tax would apply to properties known to be vacant for more than 182 days.

In Santa Ana, some buildings “have been here for 10 years, purchased with a goal but we never saw those developments come to fruition, and it’s time now we do something on our end to help those folks move along the process,” Lopez said during the Tuesday discussion.

Property owners in town are already required to register any vacant structures with City Hall, and pay a registration fee that would go toward enforcement, said officials at the meeting.

“Code enforcement will tell you it has helped with vacant property issues,” said City Manager Kristine Ridge to council members during the discussion. 

Something “more” needs to be done about absentee property owners, said Councilmember Phil Bacerra that night. 

But in lieu of a vacant property tax, Bacerra proposed tightening “what we have on the books … Whether we can increase that fee, especially for those property owners that continue to be a persistent nuisance … maybe a progressive increase for those properties …” 

“At the time it was a great response to that church fire. The reality is it made some progress,” Bacerra said. 

At the same time, he added, there’s “a lot more to be done.”

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