British Columbia

Proposed class action lawsuit alleges B.C.'s housing speculation tax unfairly targets women and seniors

A legal challenge has been filed in B.C. Supreme Court aimed at killing the province's speculation and vacancy tax.

Legal challenge seeks injunction to stop tax pending court decision

The owners of this Oak Bay home near Victoria are among those hit by B.C.'s housing speculation tax. (Mike McArthur/ CBC)

A major legal challenge has been filed in B.C. Supreme Court, aimed at killing the province's housing speculation and vacancy tax.

The lawsuit, launched on behalf of nine homeowners from Greater Victoria and Metro Vancouver, is seeking certification as a class action.

If given the go-ahead by the courts, the class action would represent all foreign owners, satellite families and Canadian residents outside B.C. who have been hit by the tax.

That would cover 9,200 of the almost 12,000 property owners forced to pay $115 million since the tax was imposed in 2018, according to provincial government figures. 

In the past year, 11,783 property owners have been assessed the speculation tax, most in Vancouver and Victoria. (Rafferty Baker/ CBC)

B.C. residents who own unrented second or additional homes would not be covered because of the way the legal action is framed — but they could benefit if the speculation tax is overturned.

Vancouver lawyer Lawrence Wong is handling the lawsuit — as well as another action filed Sept. 26 on behalf of six other homeowners, who allege B.C.'s speculation tax is unconstitutional and beyond the power of the provincial government.

Wong says the proposed class action would absorb the first lawsuit, if it's approved.

"This tax is a tax grab ... a vehicle for [the B.C. government] to rake in more tax money," said Wong. 

Vancouver lawyer Lawrence Wong is seeking certification of a class action lawsuit against the tax. (Martin Diotte/ CBC)

"There is a huge element of propaganda ... because the government calls it a speculation tax and unfortunately the people who are affected are seniors and homemakers and people who are married to foreign spouses."

Injunction sought to halt tax

The lawsuit also seeks an interim injunction to halt collection of the tax while the case is considered, arguing the levy is causing "irreparable harm"— forcing some people who can't afford the assessments to sell their homes.

It also alleges women and seniors are unfairly targeted, caught up in an overly broad tax designed to penalize foreign and domestic real estate speculators and turn empty homes into affordable housing.

The B.C. government says it brought in the anti-speculation measure because rich investors were driving up market prices by buying homes and condos, then leaving them vacant.    

'Slapped in the face by my country'

Claire Carlin is among the nine petitioners seeking the injunction and class action status. She says she's a prime example of homeowners being unfairly assessed the speculation tax.
 
Carlin, 63, is a retired University of Victoria professor who is married to Bruce Wonder, a U.S. citizen.

Claire Carlin, with her husband, Bruce Wonder, is among nine homeowners at the forefront of the proposed class action lawsuit. (Submitted by Claire Carlin)

She says they have "an unconventional marriage," where he spends most of his time living in Bellingham, Wash., while she's lived in Victoria for 30 years.

"My condo is not vacant. I live in it. It's only my name on the title," said Carlin.

But she says she's considered a member of a "satellite family" under the act, because his retirement income is higher than hers and he pays taxes in the U.S..

"I find that infuriating because I've been a professional woman all of my life ... and, suddenly, I'm defined as a 'satellite' of my husband, which has never been the case," she said.

As a result, Carlin's been assessed the highest rate under the speculation tax —  two per cent of her home's assessed value.

That means she will owe more than $20,000, money she can't afford. Carlin says she could be forced to sell her home.

"I feel as though I'm being slapped in the face by my country," she said.

Speculation tax is working: finance minister

B.C.'s finance minister says because the case is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics.

But Carole James does say the speculation and vacancy tax is a "key measure to tackle the housing crisis in B.C.'s major urban centres" and maintains "99.8 per cent of British Columbians are exempt from paying the tax."

"I'm optimistic our plan is working."

Carlin doesn't share the minister's optimism — even though she also believes real estate speculation needs to be controlled.

"I agree that it's a shame to have property sitting vacant when we have a crisis in rental housing," she said.

"But this law is like a sledgehammer that's having unintended consequences."

The B.C. government has yet to file a legal response.

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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