News / Vancouver

Tax the rich to pay for affordable housing? Good idea, say cities

At a Vancouver housing conference, officials from New York, San Francisco and Toronto say support from senior government on funding and taxation is key

Condo towers in Vancouver's Coal Harbour neighbourhood.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Condo towers in Vancouver's Coal Harbour neighbourhood.

The City of Vancouver’s housing conference was briefly disrupted this morning when protesters demanding affordable housing stormed the stage.

But the assembled panel of municipal experts used the interruption to highlight the severity of the housing problem, and to call for more action from senior levels of government — including higher taxes.

“A lot of us agree (with the protesters),” said Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, adding he was sympathetic to their call to tax the rich to help those being displaced from their housing.

This week, the city began the process of shutting down a tent city that has been located at 58 W. Hastings Street for the past four months, offering the people camping there space in shelters.

Housing officials from San Francisco, New York and Toronto speaking at Vancouver’s Re:Address conference, which is intended to help Vancouver city staff formulate new housing policies, said protests are also a common occurrence in their cities, which have all seen home prices and rents escalate beyond income growth. Vancouver’s number of homeless people is at a 10 year high, while 4,700 people sleep on San Francisco’s streets every night.

North American cities have struggled to get a grip on a housing crisis that has spiralled out of control, with at times uneven results. Toronto has considered raising property taxes to fund transit and housing, but with a $1.7 billion social housing shortfall, it would be a “drop in the bucket,” said Toronto city councillor Ana Bailao.

Protesters from the group Stop Displacement disrupt a housing conference in Vancouver on Oct. 27, 2016

Jen St. Denis

Protesters from the group Stop Displacement disrupt a housing conference in Vancouver on Oct. 27, 2016

San Francisco rushed to put in place a requirement that all new development include 25 per cent affordable housing, a move that is not based on any research and will likely have to be recalculated, said Kate Hartley, deputy director of San Francisco’s mayor’s office of housing and community development. It has led to a complete halt of new building permits as developers wait for the uncertainty to be resolved.

Vancouver’s empty homes tax could be a model for San Francisco, Hartley said.

“We estimate there’s about 7,500 units that are off the market because they are pied a terres,” she said. “I think Vancouver’s model of putting a tax on those and using that money to help fund affordable housing development is very well indicated.”

New York has put in place aggressive requirements for the inclusion of affordable housing when property is rezoned (see sidebar). But an effort to tax expensive properties being used as secondary residences was blocked by the state government, said Been.

“We need state governments to step up, we need provincial and federal governments step up, and often we are not helping each other,” said Vicki Been, commissioner of New York City’s department of housing. She added that protesters should target those higher levels of government.

“There is a dangerous tip towards more and more activism at a local level, and not enough at the state and federal level,” she said.

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