News / Vancouver

Vancouver unveils plan for new tax to tackle 10,000 empty homes

Mayor Gregor Robertson reveals how city hopes to cut the number of seemingly unused units in city with near-zero vacancy rate.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson unveils the city's pitch for a new tax levied on homes left empty in the city.

David P. Ball / Metro

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson unveils the city's pitch for a new tax levied on homes left empty in the city.

After learning that more than 10,000 housing units in Vancouver consume practically no electricity for 12 months of the year, the city is pitching up to a two per cent tax on empty suites.

Mayor Gregor Robertson announced the proposal on Wednesday morning, insisting the measure — yet to be approved by council — is “fair for taxpayers” and will have exemptions for “snowbirds” elsewhere part of the year, and Vancouverites working or studying abroad.

“Ultimately, this is going to affect a very small number of people holding property for business,” he told reporters outside City Hall. “Nobody’s living there most of the year. We want to be sure we do have people living in these homes.

“At a time when the vacancy rates are so low, we need to take action.”

But details of the proposal are still scarce, in particular how the program would be enforced. The city’s general manager of community services, Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, said that because electricity usage figures provided by BC Hydro are subject to privacy restrictions, authorities will have to rely on honest homeowners declaring their units are empty for 12 months when they file their taxes.

It will then be up to an unspecified number of auditors, armed with the ability to impose fines on violators, to investigate compliance.

“We have to go further, we have to look at empty homes, AirBNB and short term rentals … we’re using all our tools right now. They’re not just symbolic — these are tangible tools we believe can shift homes into rental and create supply at a time when there is a crisis.”

The tax would be avoided if a home were rented out. Asked why real estate speculators would heed a relatively small additional tax with prices skyrocketing, Robertson said that’s their choice.

“Some people who can afford it will not want to rent out their property,” he said. “Therefore they’re going to make a generous contribution to affordable housing in Vancouver … either way we’re going to help the cause of affordable rental housing in the city.”

Council will vote next week to “send this out to the people of Vancouver for feedback,” and if approved would not be implemented until the 2017 tax year.

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