British Columbia

Hospital patient hit with Vancouver's empty homes tax wins 'David and Goliath' battle

The City of Vancouver has extended the "late declaration" deadline for its controversial empty homes tax, much to the relief of a cancer patient who says he was unfairly hit with an $8,000 tax bill.

Vancouver City Council has voted to extend the deadlines for late declarations from 2017 through 2020

Jason Weselowski, 41, has been fighting cancer, and Vancouver city hall. (Supplied)

The City of Vancouver has extended the "late declaration" deadline for its controversial empty homes tax, much to the relief of a cancer patient who says he was unfairly hit with an $8,000 tax bill.

Jason Weselowski says the only reason his home was empty, was because he was in the hospital.

But his attempt to get his money back turned into a two year battle with City Hall — that he feared he was going to lose.

"This fight was dragging on so long that you know it just turned into [a] David and Goliath battle," said Weselowski, "and David wasn't going to win the fight."

Weselowski, 41, says he didn't receive the city's initial empty home tax notice in February 2018 because he was under treatment for Stage 3 colon cancer.

And then he missed the appeal deadline in December 2019, because he was hospitalized again.

Unemployed, Weselowski says he was forced to sell his Vancouver condo to make ends meet.

That's when he learned he owed the tax and late filing penalties totalling just over $8,000.

He had to pay the outstanding bill to complete the sale.

But when Weselowski tried to let city hall know about his repeated hospital stays, he says he was told he was out of luck — there was no provision for a empty homes tax refund after the appeal deadline.

He contacted city staff, the mayor and councillors, all to no avail.

"I've just been trying to stay alive," says Weselowski, "which actually made the fight that much more difficult."

City Council offers second chance

By the City of Vancouver's own estimates, in 2017 alone more than 120 property owners complained they missed the cut-off for exemption, citing everything from city notices sent to incorrect mailing addresses to medical issues.

Now, after a staff review of the empty homes tax, the City of Vancouver has had a change of heart.

The empty homes tax came into effect in 2017 in an attempt to discourage property owners from leaving units empty while the city is in an affordable housing crisis. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

In a council meeting held virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, Vancouver city councillors have voted to give property owners who missed the empty homes tax deadline in 2017 and 2018 one final crack at having their tax bills rescinded.

Late declarations will now be allowed until December 31, 2020.

The 2019 late declaration deadline will be extended from December 31, 2020 to July 2021, to bring it in step with the city's property tax deadline.

Final approval of the changes will come at another virtual city council meeting in late May or early June.

'We needed to have more flexibility'

Councillor Lisa Dominato says she first asked staff to review the fairness and effectiveness of the empty homes tax back in the fall.

"From my perspective we needed to have more flexibility," said Dominato. "It was my sense that we needed to have some ability to hear these people ... [who] had missed making a declaration under the empty homes tax."

Lisa Dominato, a Vancouver City councillor, asked for a staff review of the city's controversial empty homes tax last fall. (Doug Kerr/CBC)

Vancouver brought in the tax in 2017 in response to the city's housing crisis and red hot real estate market.

It was designed to penalize speculators who purchased property then left it vacant, hitting them with a one per cent tax on the assessed property value. That will climb to 1.25 per cent this year.

It was hoped the tax would result in the creation of more long-term rental housing and also provide funding for affordable housing initiatives.

Homeowners have to declare their properties aren't vacant by February each year, and the city says 97 per cent make their declarations by the deadline.

Properties deemed or declared vacant are subject to a tax of one per cent of the property's 2019 assessed taxable value. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Jason Weselowski says he missed the deadline through no fault of his own, and now is looking forward to finally having a chance to appeal.

He's hoping he'll get all of his $8,000 back.

"For someone in my position who's been fighting cancer, it's just sometimes these wins are just what you need," said Weselowski.

"So I'm speechless to be honest. Still."

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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