British Columbia

B.C.'s speculation tax 'sets women back many decades,' human rights complaint says

A Victoria woman is alleging B.C.'s Speculation and Vacancy tax discriminates against stay-at-home parents — primarily women — and the province's Human Rights Tribunal has agreed to hear her complaint.

Human Rights Tribunal agrees to hear discrimination case launched by self-described 'stay at home mom'

Melany Startek holds a copy of her discrimination complaint, accepted by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. (Supplied)

A Victoria woman is alleging B.C.'s speculation and vacancy tax discriminates against stay-at-home parents — primarily women — and the province's Human Rights Tribunal has agreed to hear her complaint.

Melany Startek, former chair of Women United with Victoria's United Way, is outraged she's considered a member of a so-called "satellite family" because she earns less than half the income of her spouse.

She claims raising a family, volunteering and contributing to the community has "zero value" in the eyes of B.C's finance ministry, which enforces the tax. 

And that, she says, is a throwback to the way women were treated more than 50 years ago.

"[This] sets women back many decades," says Startek.

"I'm being labelled as a satellite of my husband and considered his chattel for lack of a better word. It's against the Human Rights Code."

$13,250 tax bill

Startek is a Canadian citizen, a B.C. resident and has raised four children in her family home of 20 years —  but she says her Canadian husband was forced to take a job in the States when a U.S. company bought up his local employer.

He pays his taxes in the United States.

As a result, the B.C. government has told her that makes her an "untaxed worldwide earner"— someone who declares less than 50% of their family income on their Canadian income tax return, making her a member of a satellite family.

Startek has to pay the speculation tax:  $13,250 for 2019 alone.

"I'm not a speculator," says Startek, "my home isn't vacant ....we're Canadians. We're British Columbians."

Now she's fighting back, claiming discrimination.

"The tax isn't working," says Startek, "unless it's the Ministry of Finance's intention to marginalize stay-at-home moms by placing the burden of this tax that's unaffordable for any woman who's chosen to be a homemaker."

WATCH | 'We've been lumped in with criminals, money launderers, labelled as foreigners':

Melany Startek claims BC's speculation tax unfairly targets her because she's female 0:34

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal won't confirm the status of the complaint, citing privacy.

But correspondence provided to CBC News by Startek show the tribunal has already weighed some aspects of the case— rejecting her attempt to include Finance Minister Carole James and the tax administrator in the complaint but allowing her to go after the Finance Ministry itself and the assistant deputy minister who rejected Startek's appeal of the tax assessment.

"Your complaint will proceed against [the] Ministry of Finance and Heather Wood ... based on family status, marital status and sex," wrote tribunal chair Diana Juricevic.

'We have been lumped in with criminals'

In an emailed statement to the CBC, the B.C. Finance Ministry says "our government takes human rights very seriously," but "out of respect for the process of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, it would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics [of] this case."

B.C. government figures show 12,000 property owners have paid $115 million since the Speculation and Vacancy tax was imposed. (Rafferty Baker/ CBC)

Startek has no such qualms.

"I'm prevented from claiming that my home in Victoria is my principal residence, despite the fact I live in it full time with my four children," says Startek.

"I mean it's called the Spec and Vacancy tax. Our home is not vacant. We're not speculators," she says.

"Despite injecting most all of my husband's earnings into the province of B.C., we have been lumped in with criminals, money launderers [and] labelled as foreigners."

Tax targets out-of-province speculators

The B.C. government has said it brought in the speculation and vacancy tax in November 2018 to help cool the red hot real estate market, primarily in Metro Vancouver and Victoria.

It was designed to target foreign and domestic real estate speculators who left properties empty or occupied by family members, while they lived and paid taxes abroad.

In July, the province declared the tax a success. So far, it's raised $115 million to fund housing initiatives.

But the levy is facing legal challenges, including a proposed class action lawsuit.

An application for a temporary injunction to halt collection of the tax will be heard March 9 in Victoria.

The owners of this Oak Bay home are part of a proposed class action lawsuit launched against B.C.'s speculation tax last September. (Michael McArthur/ CBC)

Could open 'floodgates to ... human rights complaints'

Kailin Che, the lawyer fighting that case, now also represents Melany Startek in the human rights complaint.

She says the speculation tax exposes "people to hatred or contempt" and that the government has made satellite families "the scapegoats of B.C."

"The group is quite large," says Che, "and if Ms. Startek is successful, this could potentially open the floodgates to other human rights complaints."

But even as Startek prepares her fight, she's so disillusioned, she no longer wants to live in B.C..

Her husband has quit his U.S. job, and the family is planning to move to Ontario.

"We never thought this would happen to us," says Startek.

A date has yet to be set for the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal hearing.

Lawyer Kailin Che says B.C.'s speculation tax makes satellite families 'the scapegoats of B.C.' (Eric Rankin/ CBC)

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

About the Author

Eric Rankin

Investigative journalist

Eric Rankin is an award-winning CBC reporter. His honours include the 2018 Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reportage, the 2017 and 2015 RTDNA awards for Best In-depth/Investigative Reporting, and the 2009 Jack Webster award for Best News Reporting.

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