Jack Knox: Trapped by a tax he can't afford to pay or fight

When Big O Tire burned in View Royal last week, Eric Chang was visibly upset.

“Don is such a good neighbour,” he said as black smoke billowed into the sky. “He’s a good guy.”

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Don is Big O owner Don Swindell. Chang, who owns the Serious Coffee shop across the lot, lent his fire extinguisher to the cause when the blaze broke out.

Chang’s concern doesn’t surprise his customers. He’s a good community guy, they say. Thank-you notes from the causes he sponsors fight for space on the shop’s bulletin board.

That’s the man his neighbours see. The B.C. government, on the other hand, treats him like one of those rich foreign speculators it blamed for driving up house prices. It is crushing him with a tax bill he can afford to neither pay nor fight — which seems strange, given that it was the same government that threw open the doors so he could invest his life savings here.

Chang is caught in a bizarre situation in which the province is simultaneously welcoming him as a benefit to Canada and treating him as an alien speculator.

The Taiwan native, his then-wife and their two children came to Canada in 2015, hoping to be accepted by B.C.’s provincial nominee program — a fast track to permanent-resident status for immigrant entrepreneurs.

In April 2016, they plunked down a hefty deposit to buy a house that was to be built in Coquitlam — only to be blindsided when Christy Clark’s Liberal government brought in a 15 per cent foreign buyers tax in the Lower Mainland that summer. Chang says there’s no way they would have signed the contract had they known the tax was coming. “It’s way out of my budget.”

But he was locked in. When the sale was registered in 2017, after the house was finished, Chang and his wife were each down for one per cent while his sister, a longtime Canadian citizen who was helping them, was in for 98. A notary told the couple they only needed to pay tax on their stake.

They all sold the house later in 2017 when Chang bought a home in Colwood, near the View Royal coffee shop he purchased.

Then, a year later, came a tax bill for $242,000. The province figured Chang had used his Canadian sister as a way to dodge the foreign buyers tax on the Coquitlam purchase. No, he insists, her involvement was real; when the home sold, it was she who got the profit, while he just got his deposit back.

Besides, he said, the real issue is the way the province pulled the rug out from under him by imposing the tax after he (or, to be precise, his wife) signed that pre-sale contract. It’s exactly the sort of unintended consequence that New Democrat David Eby, then in opposition, warned of when the Liberals introduced the tax. “It penalizes new immigrants who are working and living here, but don’t have citizenship yet,” Eby told the CBC.

But once in power, the New Democrats brought in their own legislation in 2018 that increased the tax to 20 per cent and expanded it to include home purchases in Greater Victoria and Nanaimo.

So, now, Chang is in trouble. He is not the stereotypical rich foreigner the politicians envisioned when trying to cool the real estate market. His money is tied up in the coffee shop, where he works seven days a week, and which he must own as one of the many conditions of the provincial nominee program.

At first, he hired a lawyer to take on the taxman, but then he figured the legal bills could ruin him even if he won. So now he’s trying to negotiate the legal process on his own, even with his imperfect English.

“I don’t know how to represent myself, but I have no choice.”

And now penalties have taken the ever-climbing tax bill to $275,000. Collection agents are involved, which has screwed up his credit rating, which means when his mortgage comes up, he’ll pay through the nose.

He is stressed. So are his friends. “It breaks my heart, what the provincial government is putting him through,” says Ginger Halbert, one of his regular customers. “Nobody’s listening. Nobody cares, but it’s his whole life.”

“If this is how we treat the good people who we want to come here, they’re not going to come.”

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