British Columbia

Vancouver mayor files motion to 'improve' empty homes tax

Mayor Kennedy Stewart campaigned on a promise to triple the levy.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart campaigned on promise to triple levy

Kennedy Stewart pictured shortly after his election as mayor of Vancouver in October 2018. The mayor has put forward a motion asking city councillors to direct staff to look at ways to 'improve' the city's empty homes tax. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has filed a motion to have council staff come up with a plan to "review and improve the fairness and effectiveness" of the empty homes tax.

Stewart asked that such a plan include a timeline to find information on the potential impact of "increasing" the tax.

"During the election, there was support for an increase in the EHT [empty homes tax rate]," said the motion, which will go before council on Tuesday.

"Is it moving folks into the empty homes? ... and to what extent, and would an increase help?"

Last fall, Stewart campaigned on a promise to triple the levy. It was originally introduced at one per cent of a vacant property's assessed value on July 1, 2017.

Prospective buyers and residents in Vancouver have long complained that investors are buying houses and leaving them empty, driving up prices and reducing supply. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stewart has long praised the initiative.

"The tax is proving effective and tripling it will just amplify that effectiveness," he told CBC's As It Happens in October, two days after he was elected mayor.

The tax is applied to vacant residential properties in an effort to motivating owners of empty and under-utilized properties to put them on market and ease the rental crunch.

Homeowners must make an annual declaration for each property they own to determine if it is subject to the tax, which does not apply to principal residences or homes rented for at least half the year.

An exemption can be granted for things like construction and renovations.

Figures from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation showed a 0.1 per cent increase in the city's primary market vacancy rate in 2017 (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

On Friday, Stewart said he hopes the report is a sort of progress report on how the tax is working, and whether it can work better to fill empty homes.

"It's really just a good public policy process where you tighten things up after you've run them for a couple of times and then you see if we can make the case for increasing the tax," he said.

In November, the city said it expected to collect about $38 million from the first full year of the tax — but that same month, a report said the vacancy rate was still tight.

Figures from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation showed a 0.1 per cent increase in the city's primary market vacancy rate in 2017 — rising from 0.8 per cent to 0.9 per cent.

That's less than the 0.2 per cent increase in the vacancy rate across the rest of the Lower Mainland region, where there is no empty homes tax. 

Stewart said the stubborn vacancy rate would be "the case for edging [the tax] upwards."

"If they're not sufficiently incentivizing people, then you increase it a little bit," he said Friday.

At the time, the city said staff were still monitoring the effects of the program and hoped to see a bigger impact on vacancy rates over time.

The declaration period for the second year of the tax is open, with a deadline of Feb. 4.

CBC News has contacted the mayor's office for further comment.

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