B.C.’s property speculation tax ‘devastating’ for Village of Belcarra

VANCOUVER — The humble A-frame cabin is a one-room structure with a loft space for a couple of beds. It has no potable water, no insulation and isn’t connected to any sewer system.

Nancy Strain’s father purchased the waterfront lot for $2,000 and floated logs and equipment up the fjord in 1963 to build the cabin.

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Fifty-six years later, that cabin is being hit with the province’s new speculation and vacancy tax.

“I don’t know how they figure the little guy can pay,” said the 71-year-old retired Coquitlam woman.

The cabin is assessed at $26,500. The value is in the land, worth close to $1.4 million.

The new levy, which the provincial government pitched as a means to curb speculators and improve affordability, means that Strain, her 91-year-old mother, retired brother and a nephew are on the hook for about $7,000 annually.

While the cabin is rich with memories, it doesn’t make them rich, said Strain.

“It doesn’t mean you’re a millionaire when you live here. We are ordinary Joes. How do they figure after you own a place for 60-something odd years that that’s speculating?”

Charline Robson is in the same boat. She lives in a property in Belcarra. In 2017, her aunt bequeathed her two adjoining lots, next to Strain.

One has a cabin built in the 1950’s that would cost $6,000 in speculation tax; the other is bare land, which is exempt from the tax in 2018 but would also face the same 0.5 per cent tax rate in subsequent years.

And that’s in addition to what she pays in property tax — about $11,000 for the two lots.

Robson said she can’t afford any upgrades to the property to allow her to rent the cabin out. Neither can she afford the new tax bill.

“It’s a legacy, it’s not an investment lot,” she said. “I’m devastated to think I would have to sell the cabin.”

The tax is “devastating” for Belcarra, said Mayor Neil Belenkie, who wants his municipality, with a population of 700 people, exempted from the tax, like Lions Bay and Bowen Island are.

“There’s a feeling of unfairness and outright fear,” said Belenkie.

Many homeowners are land-rich but cash poor. “People are going to lose cabins and cottages they have inherited that have been in the family,” he said.

About 15 per cent of Belcarra’s 300 homes, or 45 homes, are affected by the tax. Most are cottages or cabins used seasonally or on weekends. Most are not served with water or power, lack road access, potable water or heating, making them unfeasible to rent out and leaving many with no choice but to put their cabins up for sale.

The municipality has already seen six homes listed for sale the last two weeks, with another two coming on the market soon, said Belenkie. By comparison, in a typical year less than 10 houses go on sale in Belcarra. The sudden glut of listed homes would hurt the values of other homes in the community, he said.

B.C. Finance Minister Carole James was not available for an interview on Wednesday, but NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert said many British Columbians are supportive of the principles behind the tax.

“If there’s a home sitting empty in Metro Vancouver, we need that as housing,” he said. “There is a crisis impacting our economy and making it difficult for people to get by. We are trying to get housing available and the principles of the speculation and vacancy tax have been embraced by most people in the region.”

Chandra Herbert said homeowners who rent out their secondary properties for six months are exempt from the tax. “There are always options,” he said, citing one case where renters helped owners upgrade their cabin.

He said he cannot speak to the finance minister’s decision to exempt other municipalities like Bowen Island or Lions Bay, which also has a number of cabins and cottages, from the tax, but not Belcarra.

James will be consulting with mayors of affected municipalities to see what changes or exemptions could be made, he said.

Belenkie says Belcarra should not be on the hook for the tax.

“I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if Lions Bay wasn’t exempted,” he said.

“They’ve already proven that the Lions Bay model (which is similar to Belcarra) is not appropriate for the speculation tax.

“I want them to do what is right and not punish our residents and families.”

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