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How many vacant homes does San Francisco really have?

More than you might think, but it’s a tricky question

A photo of the roofs of San Francisco homes, with the top of a dense line of trees in the foreground. Via Shutterstock

With locals taking drastic steps to secure homes during the housing crisis, like refusing to pay rent en masse or moving into empty houses sans lease, the fact that every day tens of thousands of valuable and much-needed Bay Area homes remain vacant is rage-inducing.

But figuring out exactly how many homes lay fallow, and why, can prove elusive.

In response to claims by Moms 4 Housing activists, the Oakland-based collective that successfully squatted inside a home, Curbed SF surveyed census data last year to see how many homes sat vacant in cities like San Francisco and Oakland. At the time, the best data available revealed tens of thousands of vacancies—well over 38,600 in SF alone.

Shortly thereafter, the census released new more detailed data for the years 2014 through 2018, including adjusted figures on vacancies. The San Jose Mercury-News subsequently published a story in December that tabulated a much lower figure for SF of 11,760 empties.

Other outlets carried the 11,760 figure as well. However, that number isn’t quite right—or at least, it’s not the whole story.

SF’s total number of vacant homes per the census in 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available) came in at 34,302, with a margin of error of over 1,600—lower than the previously estimate by thousands of units, but not such a huge drift that it’s all that surprising.

It’s critical to note that “vacant” can mean a lot of things when the census starts throwing the term around. For example, in San Francisco it could mean any of the following:

  • 6,694 of those vacancies were units currently listed for rent that hadn’t yet found tenants. Another 1,031 were homes for sale that didn’t yet have buyers.
  • 6,294 were homes with either current owners or renters that were just not living there. This can happen for any number of reasons: hospital stays, long trips out of town, delayed move-ins, even cases of homeowners who have died but are still technically counted as the resident.
  • 8,523 were “occasional use” homes—i.e., these were second homes, vacation homes, some types of short-term rentals, or just any unit that was accounted for but not lived in most of the year. (The Mercury-News references these but classifies them separately from vacant homes, whereas the census considers these vacancies in themselves.)
  • Finally, the census designated 11,760 homes in the catch-all category of “other vacant.”

It’s the “other vacant” number that some outlets cited as the total number of empty homes in SF, but in a more specific sense these are really just the vacancies that are hard to classify.

Some of these homes have been foreclosed on, and others are currently uninhabitable—possibly even condemned. Some units are in the middle of renovations or seismic upgrades, while others will eventually be listed for sale or rent but are delayed.

And yes, some homes are empty for seemingly no good reason at all—the census even counts furniture storage as a potential explanation.

Maybe the real bottom line here is that if people are mad about the number of vacant homes in SF, how justified are they? That depends on your point of view. With the homeless population cresting 8,000, the fact that these many houses are kept as mostly empty vacation homes will rub some people the wrong way.

But others may argue that this is a normal part of life in a major market and that such buying habits long predate the current crisis.

The same other media outlets also cited a total of 46,000 vacant homes across the Bay Area, but again, this is based on only the ‘other’ category. Oakland alone has over 10,000 empties if you count every type listed, and San Jose over 12,500.

One other thing worth noting is that the Bay Area’s overall vacancy rate is extremely low; across the entire SF-Oakland-Hayward census area—which spans SF, San Mateo County, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, and Marin County—the vacancy rate is 3.3 percent. Nationally, it’s 6.7 percent for major cities, and 5.9 percent for the suburbs.

And it’s no wonder; those homes are worth a lot, but they’re not doing anyone any good sitting empty—even if a lot of them do anyway.