Who has the right to this city? Proposal to tax empty condos in Vancouver is part of an overdue debate

In the 2008 municipal election, Gregor Robertson swept into the Mayor’s office on a promise to eliminate homelessness in Vancouver.

The issue was the centrepiece of his campaign, even though the target date for fulfilling the promise was 2015, seven years away.

Now, with 2015 almost upon us, the homeless count is way up and the real estate market is as crazy as ever. So there are countless people with precarious housing, a paycheque away from eviction.

With a municipal election coming up Nov. 15, Vancouver’s housing crisis and the unfulfilled promise to eliminate homelessness should be a focal point of this fall’s campaign. As if to drive the point home, a tent city has been set up in Oppenheimer Park, demanding homes for all who need them.

Mayor Robertson and his party, Vision Vancouver, are doing everything they can to make the upcoming election campaign about something other than the housing crisis. They seem intent on steering debate elsewhere, focusing their campaign advertising and social media on issues like the Broadway subway line proposal and their opposition to Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion.

However, with Robertson facing a left-wing challenge for Mayor from Meena Wong of the Coalition of Progressive Electors, it’s proving harder for Vision Vancouver to set the terms of debate in this campaign. One of Wong’s first proposals has been to call for a surtax on empty properties, because of the high number of vacant condos and other homes left empty in Vancouver.

This idea for a “speculator’s tax” on empty condos was actually floated by Robertson way back in the 2008 campaign, specifically as a means to encourage investors to rent out empty units. But his administration never followed through with anything, and it was largely forgotten. Now COPE has brought the idea back for a long overdue debate.

Wong is calling for a surtax on empty homes.

Wong is calling for a surtax on empty homes. | Photo courtesy of Polygon Homes

How have the rest of the parties responded? The Green Party, whose councillor Adriane Carr is seeking re-election, has come out in support of the idea of taxing vacant properties. RJ Aquino, running for city council with the brand new party One City, indicated to me that he supports this type of proposal and that the issue of dealing with empty properties will be part of his election platform. The NPA and their mayoral candidate Kirk Lapointe have only said that the issue, including the viability of enforcement, needs more study.

Over at the Vancouver Province newspaper the editors blew a gasket, issuing a furious editorial lambasting COPE’s “naive, discredited and destructive economic views.” The editors went on to basically tell anyone priced out by Vancouver’s real estate bubble to find another city to live in

“No one has a ‘right’ to own a house in a particular city or neighbourhood, and it’s about time that people like Wong and her COPE and NDP pals stopped promoting such notions, especially when it involves taking money from one group and giving it to another. You want a house? Work hard and buy one – or move somewhere cheaper.”

It would be hard to find a more succinct expression of the callous philosophy of Vancouver’s rich and powerful. It’s unusual, to say the least, for one of the city’s two main daily papers to issue an editorial against a third party candidate two months away from an election. Meena Wong has obviously struck a nerve, and the howls from the Province should be taken as an indication that this policy proposal needs to be pursued.

The issue of empty condos in Vancouver, it should be noted, has sometimes been wrongly portrayed as just a matter of foreign investors. This lets local multi-propertied speculators off the hook, and has the potential to feed into xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Meena Wong, in raising the proposal of taxing empty properties, has made it clear it has nothing to do with where the owners live. This is about using tax policy to discourage speculation and to raise revenue which can be used for more affordable housing and other public services. Wong’s really just proposing sensible reforms.

Gregor Robertson, for his part, told the Vancouver Sun, “We have real concerns around empty homes, and affordability.” He also told the Sun the idea needed to wait for the results of ongoing research. “We will look at the next steps once we have that information.” But, after six years, who really believes Robertson and Vision are serious about tackling the affordability and housing crisis in Vancouver? The developers who pay the piper call the tune, even if Vision politicians never express themselves in the shrill manner of the Province’s editors.

Who has the right to this city? Is Vancouver just for the rich? Or can Vancouver become a city for working class people, for tenants and for low-income people? These are the big questions this election campaign should debate. Talking about taxing some empty investment properties is a good start.

4 thoughts on “Who has the right to this city? Proposal to tax empty condos in Vancouver is part of an overdue debate

  1. Considering the amounts of revenue The Province (and The Vancouver Sun) make from property developers, of course they’re going to be on the side of no taxation for empty units. There’s money to be made from advertising new condo developments, whether they sit empty or not!

  2. We need this so badly. Although I agree that the issue is more complex than blaming foreign investors I think it would have been a better article if it had outlined how much impact foreign speculators are having on the market. I highly doubt local real estate spectators have a beef with offshore money driving up the value of their investments so the local elites are benefiting quite handsomely from this. However, I think it is hard to escape the reality that Vancouver (and Hong Kong and Seattle) seems to have a never ending real estate bubble that is being driven heavily by overseas Asian investment. Identifying the source of the money isn’t automatically racist. Half the city’s residents are of Asian descent and the majority of them are just as effected by this as everyone else.

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