Analysis

School tax: NDP ignores 'golden pitchfork' protesters at own peril

In a B.C. housing market that has turned thousands of residents into overnight millionaires - on paper at least - should homeowners feel like the enemy?

Levy on houses worth more than $3M pits homeowners against citizens left out of 'windfall'

Outrage - Vancouver style. These protesters insisted on rallying against the proposed school tax increase Tuesday. (CBC)

There's nothing worse than discovering you're the enemy.

B.C.'s teachers felt demonized under the former provincial Liberal government. Welfare recipients are a perennial target. So are ungrateful immigrants.

Just imagine what it must be like to be a convict.

Now, in a Vancouver housing market that has turned thousands into overnight millionaires — on paper at least — it's the turn of the homeowner to feel like a scapegoat.

Of course, NDP Finance Minister Carole James doesn't cast it that way in justifying an additional "school tax" to be levied on the assessed value of homes worth more than $3 million.

But it's apparent the elite group that has taken up arms in opposition feel targeted.

And that there's also nothing worse than finding out you're part of what someone else considers the "elite."

'Serious political damage?'

"You're trying to tax the bubble," says UBC political scientist Max Cameron. 

"If part of the story you want to tell is that we have been in a bubble, the wealth you're going after is money created by that bubble. It's not money that people have at their disposal."

Cameron says the government may be playing with fire.

Attorney General David Eby said he was forced to cancel a town hall meeting after school tax protesters threatened to disrupt the gathering. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The tax — intended to pay for school seismic upgrades — would increase property tax by .2 per cent on homes valued between $3 and $4 million and .4 per cent on the value above $4 million.

It targets a demographic that includes people wealthy enough to buy multimillion dollar homes and those fated by timely purchases or inheritance to live among them.

Snarky comments on Attorney General David Eby's Facebook page mocked the "golden pitchforks" whose threatened protests forced the politician to scuttle a scheduled town hall this week.

But Cameron says no one should underestimate the power of the upper middle class.

Or the resentment of homeowners tired of the suggestion they should be ashamed — in the midst of a housing crisis — for good fortune they can't realize unless they move.

"It could do some serious political damage," he says.

"These are people who have a high level of capacity to shape the narrative about this, to put political pressure on the government in seemly and unseemly ways and to vent what could be a simmering frustration."

Victims of circumstance?

The protesters gathered in spite of Eby's refusal to provide a physical target. They looked more like members of the PTA than the Black Flag: grey hair, spectacles and tucked-in shirts.

The closest anyone came to a balaclava might have been the odd Hermes scarf.

David Tha (holding megaphone) denounces a proposed school tax increase on homes worth more than $3 million as a cash grab. (CBC)

They do have their own Change.org petition: a kind of 'High Property Assessment Lives Matter' attempt at grassroots outrage started by the Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners Association. 

Their website features a letter summing up "how this tax will affect ordinary Canadian families."

They claim to be victims of circumstance. And some undoubtedly are. But not every Point Grey resident is living off food stamps to save for the impending bill.

Take Chip Wilson's home — assessed at $78.8 million; being the founder of Lululemon presumably had more to do with that than just buying at the right time.

The protesters say tax should be taken on income, not property.

But declared income isn't always an indicator of wealth — as many of the accountants among the protesters might attest.

'A great windfall'

It's a mark of the topsy turvy nature of wealth and real estate in Vancouver that those desperate to buy into the bottom end of the market over-inflate their worth to qualify for mortgages while people at the top end plead poverty.

In a letter to constituents, Eby says homeowners can defer the tax until they sell. But it's his justification that may irk homeowners.

"When, and if, people fortunate enough to own a home in this price range decide to sell, they will benefit from a great windfall," Eby wrote.

A windfall. Like a lottery. You didn't expect to have this money — why shouldn't you share it? The protesters say that ignores the sacrifices many British Columbians have made and continue to make in a bid to buy into the market.  

And it preys on the resentment of those left out.

Of course, that's the problem with making mass generalizations about large groups of people. One that infuses B.C. politics no matter who is in power.

Not all Point Grey homeowners are as rich as Chip Wilson. Not all teachers are in the job for the two-month vacation. And not everyone on welfare doesn't want to work.

Just as Liberals care about more than just money — and NDP voters don't all love to pay taxes.

If you are interested in housing affordability, check out CBC's new podcast, SOLD! Host Stephen Quinn explores how foreign investment in real estate divides community, class and culture. Find it at CBC Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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