It's not easy to determine how and why so many houses in Vancouver are sitting empty right now, city council is learning.

In the past, foreign owners have been blamed for bidding up the prices of Vancouver homes and then leaving them empty, as part of real estate investment strategies.

That's led to calls for a crackdown on foreign ownership to combat the growing problem of finding affordable housing inside the city limits for many families.

But Coun. Geoff Meggs said one thing is clear — the problem is more complex than it might appear, and solutions may not lie with the city.

"The reality [is] that the city cannot, on its own, control foreign ownership, if that is indeed the root of the problem. That would require provincial or federal action, as it has elsewhere," wrote Meggs on his blog recently.

Why do homes sit empty?

Last week the city's chief housing officer Mukhtar Latif told councillors there are at least 10 unique reasons why a house may appear unoccupied:

  • Development timing – vacant prior to demolition or following new construction.
  • Property is in the process of being sold or rented.
  • Property has been vacated in anticipation of being renovated.
  • Flipping – bought and sold in a short period of time, with no real possibility of rental.
  • Domestic investment property –  decision pending to rent or leave vacant for a later sale.
  • International investment property – decision pending to rent or leave vacant for a later sale.
  • Probate – the owner has died and their estate is being administered.
  • Hoteling – owner with a long commute buys a property to live in during the work week.
  • Sabbatical/Snowbirds – because of work, retirement or travel, the owner could be away.
  • Owner is in hospital or in care.

Latif also told the city it is difficult getting accurate information on how many houses are vacant and why. While BC Hydro usage data can help identify empty homes, it does not indicate why the homes are empty.

As a result the city has issued a request for proposals to hire a consultant to further investigate the issue.

Meggs says he expects the contract to be issued in the coming weeks.