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Councillors contemplate tax on vacant homes

Coun. Colin Plant and Coun. Vickie Sanders have raised the possibility of an empty-house tax that would help fund affordable housing initiatives in Saanich. They are standing in front of Cottage Grove, a housing facility for previously homeless seniors that the Cool Aid Society operates on Quadra Street in Saanich. - Wolf Depner/News Staff
Coun. Colin Plant and Coun. Vickie Sanders have raised the possibility of an empty-house tax that would help fund affordable housing initiatives in Saanich. They are standing in front of Cottage Grove, a housing facility for previously homeless seniors that the Cool Aid Society operates on Quadra Street in Saanich.
— image credit: Wolf Depner/News Staff

Should Saanich adopt what experts call an empty-home tax?  At least a couple of Saanich councillors are interested in the idea.

While Coun. Colin Plant is not “completely convinced” that Saanich needs a foreign buyers tax, he is open to other options.

“I am not comfortable at all with foreign speculative investment in our housing market and would certainly support an empty house tax if the province were to grant us that taxing authority,” he said.

Statistics released last week show that about five per cent of private homes in Saanich – 2,770 – are unoccupied.

Plant belongs to a growing chorus of officials around Vancouver Island and the province at large who are calling for such measures.

Victoria Coun. Jeremy Loveday recently called for an empty-home tax to help affordable housing initiatives.

In fact, such a measure came into effect Jan. 1 in the City of Vancouver under the Vancouver Charter, which grants the city different powers than other communities in British Columbia.

According to Vancouver’s empty-house tax, homes deemed empty will be subject to a tax of one per cent of the property’s assessed value. According to the City of Vancouver, the tax does not apply to most homes, as it does not apply to principal residences or homes rented on a long-term basis.

A study that the City of Vancouver commissioned a year ago found that about five per cent of surveyed homes could be considered unoccupied for a year or more, a finding that figured prominently in the creation of that city’s empty home tax.

Plant, however, cautioned that much more study needs to be done for Saanich to act, if it were to act.

“As Saanich has not done any analysis of the census data, it would be premature for me to comment on the [five per cent] number beyond some general comments,” he said. “Obviously, the more housing options that exist for people in Saanich the better.”

Plant said most people “would agree that it is not particularly helpful” to have empty houses in the middle of a housing crunch. “However, I’m not sure I’m ready to suggest the specific components of any bylaw beyond suggesting that investment in real estate by foreign owners who do not live or have their families living in the purchased properties should be discouraged and have regulations.”

If the phenomenon of empty homes were to be identified as a problem, Saanich should have an opportunity from the province to create an empty-home tax. “I certainly am keeping an eye on the issue of foreign ownership and vacant homes,” he said.

Plant’s comments echo similar comments from Coun. Vickie Sanders made last month to the Saanich News, when she said that she is concerned about buildings being left vacant and becoming derelict. “That now becomes a liability for a neighbourhood.  I believe there should be a penalty/tax in that situation.”

That said, Sanders noted that the issue of empty houses might not be as clear cut as it appears.

“If properties are being marketed to foreign buyers as an investment rather than for living and leaving them vacant I have a concern. If they are purchasing them for their use when visiting or family/friends I think that is another issue,” she said.

 

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