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Victoria city council seeks authority to tax empty homes

Council is asking the province for the authority to invoke a vacancy tax
Victoria City Council voted to once again ask the province for the authority to invoke a vacancy tax. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Victoria city council is one step closer to instating a vacancy tax on unoccupied buildings.

For the second time a motion put forward by Coun. Ben Isitt and Coun. Jeremy Loveday will ask the province to grant local governments the ability to introduce a surtax on vacant buildings. The motion comes after Vancouver instated a similar policy in 2016, a one per cent tax which resulted in $38 million in revenue in 2018.

The committee of the whole passed the motion eight to one on Thursday, but not without considerable debate.

Coun. Geoff Young was most against it, saying that provincial legislation regarding foreign investors could be seen as racist. He compared the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants in 1885 to the speculation tax in Vancouver.

“One of these we look back and say ‘wasn’t that terrible?’ and another we’re adopting,” Young said, adding that foreign investment was declining. “Are we addressing a problem that’s in the midst of going away?”

Loveday clarified that the motion was not for foreign investors, but for vacant buildings that could be used for housing purposes– an altogether separate tax.

ALSO READ: Battle resumes over speculation tax on B.C. vacant homes

“I happen to disagree fervently with the comments that have been made about for speculation investment tax being racist; it’s not a tax on people it’s a tax on global capital distorting local housing markets,” Loveday said. “This is about municipal autonomy and giving municipalities the ability to choose whether or not they’d like to impose a vacancy tax. This isn’t asking council to take a position on whether Victoria would impose the tax even if we were in a position to do so.”

Council debated whether the wording should be specific to residential buildings or not, noting some derelict commercial properties, such as a hotel along the Douglas Street corridor, could be used for residential purposes.

ALSO READ: Greater Victoria home builders knock down speculation tax

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps noted that there were over 26 vacant or abandoned buildings that the city knew of, but had no authority to touch.

“If we had this we would have the authority to go around to every boarded up building that is a blight and tax it or do some kind of mechanism to have it back in productive use,” Helps said. ” I’m very interested in the number of properties that are vacant and derelict and are really frustrating.”

READ MORE: UBCM endorses Victoria’s resolution to tax empty homes

In the end, however, it was decided that wording should be specific to residential properties to avoid conflicts with commercial properties that are vacant, such as office buildings seeking renters.

The wording would also stay on par with a similar motion that had passed with the Union of B.C. Municipalities in previous years, but which failed to get provincial approval.

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