News / Vancouver

Poll: Should Vancouver tax owners of vacant condos?

Vancouver’s empty condos, owned as an investment but rarely used, are a sore spot for renters who struggle to find decent apartments in a city with exceedingly low rental vacancy rates.

As the municipal election approaches, politicians from Vancouver’s three historically dominant civic parties are pondering how to deal with vacant condos, an issue that often sparks heated discussions as it overlaps with foreign ownership, affordable housing and property rights.

While it’s unclear how many condos are empty, in the prestigious downtown Coal Harbour neighbourhood the vacancy rate is nearly 25 per cent, according to the most often cited research (based on census data) by UBC adjunct professor Andy Yan.

COPE mayoral candidate Meena Wong promises to tax property owners that leave units “consistently unoccupied” for 12 months. Her party believes this will target investors, not people with vacation homes.

[polldaddy poll=8314966]To do this, COPE will register owners (for a fee) to take an inventory of housing, get property owners to report usage and give them an incentive – this is not defined – to rent them out.

Vision Vancouver had a similar plan to give incentives owners to “unlock” vacant condo units in its 2008 election platform, but didn’t follow through with that strategy, Coun. Geoff Meggs said Wednesday.

“We have changed our focus to expanding the supply of rental housing,” Meggs said, pointing to the expanded rental stock under the Rental 100 program. (Units built under this program must remain as rentals for 60 years or the life of the building.)

Council has, however, directed the city’s new housing agency to collect data on the number of vacant units to determine the size of the problem, Meggs said.

“It is offensive to people the idea that there are useful homes that are not being made available,” he said.

But if there are copious empty condos, it’s not clear the city has the authority to tackle it as provinces and states usually regulate ownership, Meggs added. The city would also have to decide when it’s acceptable for an owner to have a vacant space.

“It’s extremely difficult to determine whether something is empty for a good reason,” he said.

Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe agrees that more research needs to be done to assess the scale of the issue. But he questioned how the city would enforce the rules – property owners can pay building manager to use utilities every once and a while – whether such a tax would be legal and what the city would do with any tax revenue.