Province OKs tax on vacant housing in Vancouver

Victoria, Oak Bay express interest in levy on homes that sit empty most of the year

Vancouver’s desire to levy a tax on empty housing has received the go-ahead from the provincial government, prompting the mayors of Victoria and Oak Bay to say they’re also interested in such a tax.

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong said Monday that the legislature will meet July 25 to discuss changing the Vancouver Charter so that the city can impose and collect a tax on housing that sits empty.

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The levy is aimed at improving the supply of rental homes in the city’s real estate market, while waiting for new construction to come online, de Jong said. “There’s no question that, in addition to the conversations that we have been having about affordability with respect to the purchasing market, there are challenges for folks wanting to rent,” he said at a news conference. “It is ultimately about supply. It is about trying to increase the supply of rental accommodation.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said if the province is going to amend the Vancouver Charter, it should also amend the Community Charter so all the province’s municipalities — not just Vancouver — have the tools to deal with housing problems.

“I would strongly urge the finance minister to also consider a similar amendment to the Community Charter. Victoria has been identified after Toronto and Vancouver as the third most expensive place to buy or rent in Canada. We can get ahead of the curve here, I think, in having the same capacity as Vancouver,” Helps said.

“If the Vancouver Charter is being amended anyway it’s a simple amendment to the Community Charter, and a parallel amendment to the Community Charter would be most welcome by the rest of the municipalities in British Columbia and certainly by the capital city.”

Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen said housing vacancies “are an increasing issue in our neighbourhoods.”

“I know of a number of places myself that are left empty for most of the year and I have asked staff, as soon as they are able, to have a look at the legislation to see how it may apply to Oak Bay and whether or not we need to ask specifically to be empowered in the same way that Vancouver is receiving the power,” Jensen said.

“Certainly, it’s something that council will no doubt want to examine as to whether or not we can do that and whether or not we should do that.”

Jensen said there’s no point in waiting until Oak Bay is in the same crisis situation as is Vancouver before taking action. “Proper planning should be such that you don’t get to a point of crisis or an [emergency] situation.”

Helps wondered whether derelict buildings would be classified as vacant.

“That’s one of our biggest challenges. There are 32 derelict properties in the city of Victoria that could be housing people; that could be new housing. They’re not. They’re derelict,” she said.

Saanich acting Mayor Susan Brice said she does not believe a tax on vacant housing would be useful because it does not appear to be an issue in that municipality.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said the province’s “piecemeal” approach to Vancouver’s overheated real estate market risks making things worse. “With this rushed session they are introducing new chaos into an unstable situation. What will the impacts be of one municipality in a connected region acting alone? My guess is that no one really knows,” Weaver said in a statement.

The finance minister said that the province would share data, including electricity use and information from homeowners’ grants to help Vancouver identify vacant homes.

A recent Vancouver-commissioned study found that about 10,800 homes were left empty for a year or more, most of them condominiums. The city’s rental vacancy rate is 0.6 per cent.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said it was too early to say how much owners of vacant homes would be taxed. He acknowledged some owners are so rich that a tax won’t be enough incentive to rent out their units.

“If people are wealthy enough to hold these houses empty 12 months of the year, then they should be paying a higher tax,” he said. “That money can be used for affordable housing.”

The tax wouldn’t target snowbirds or part-time residents, only people who are keeping homes vacant year-round, he said.

— With files from Bill Cleverley and Carla Wilson

 

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