Vancouver senior stuck in Australia assessed empty homes tax

VANCOUVER — Vancouver senior Arlene Gould was visiting her daughter and newborn granddaughter in Australia when COVID-19 hit.

She meant to go for two months. But a year later, she’s still there.

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“Available flights consist of 30 hours or more in transit, a 16-hour layover in Tokyo or rerouting through the U.S.A., with its own particular brand of horror,” she wrote in an email. “My options are priced between $5,000 and $7,000 for a one-way flight. Without a vaccine I am going nowhere.”

There have been some positives. Her daughter lives in Brisbane, where cases of COVID-19 have been rare. The weather has been great, and the seashore is nearby.

Unfortunately, her two-year-old grandson has been diagnosed with cancer, and has been undergoing treatment.

Another problem has arisen back in Vancouver: registering her downtown condo for the city’s empty homes tax. She had a hard time figuring out the online form, missed the Feb. 2 deadline, and was assessed the tax.

Her condo has an assessed value of $717,000. She was sent a vacancy tax reminder on Jan. 12 stating if she did not declare by Feb. 2, she would owe $8,625.00. With the help of her daughter, she sent the empty homes tax declaration to the city Feb. 22, so she doesn’t owe the tax. But she’s still being assessed a $250 fine for not filing in time, which goes up to $375 on March 22.

It makes her furious.

“I am not mentally capable of dealing with the onus of ever-changing government forms, declarations and now a bylaw,” said Gould, 70. “Website instructions only serve to confuse me further. Although I was certain that I checked ‘email’ for notifications, tax notices have been piling up in my Vancouver apartment this year.

“I remain trapped in a country that is not mine, living in a rented furnished apartment. The costs of this scenario are beyond imaginable. I am innocent, old and now not only abandoned but harassed by Canadian government departments.”

But the city isn’t cutting her any slack.

“Ultimately, it is the property owner’s responsibility to be aware of the deadlines and to ensure they are paying their city taxes and making declarations on time,” emailed a spokesperson for the city’s communications department.

“Empty Homes Tax declarations and payments can be made easily online, and anyone who requires assistance can speak to a 311 agent over the phone. The city encourages setting up an online account and signing up for eBilling to avoid missing deadlines.”

When it was pointed out Gould is in Australia, and dialing 311 probably wouldn’t work, the spokesperson emailed “to make a call to 311 from outside Vancouver, citizens can dial (+1) 604-873-7000.” In fact, you have to add an exit code, so it’s 0011-1-604-873-7000. Citizens can also email vacancytax@vancouver.ca.

Gould said figuring out the empty homes tax just isn’t all that easy for seniors.

“The city has implemented new rules in a time of societal collapse,” she said. “Complicating what should be a simple process, they have increased confusion and added penalties. Redesigning their website, changing the department to report to, then changing the deadline dates repeatedly due to delays in the development of their website, these guys set me up to fail. Other seniors on their own as well, I would imagine.”

Gould was so miffed that she emailed Sadhu Johnston, who was the city manager until January. She was even more miffed by the reply: “Your message couldn’t be delivered because you don’t have permission to send to this recipient. Ask the recipient’s email admin to grant you permission and then try again.”

She is confused by the email, which was an automatic reply.

“Why does a citizen must now gain ‘permission’ to write to a city employee?” she asked.

The city is looking into the automatic reply. It also said it will contact her about her problems with the empty homes tax.

“My issues with the property tax department is their aggressiveness regarding my delayed declaration of property tax status,” she said. “I am ancient, born in Canada enduring extenuating circumstances in a foreign land, but the city leaves no room for that.

“It requires critical thinking and compassion.”

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