British Columbia

Vancouver condo owner accuses city of bullying over empty homes tax

When is a Vancouver home an empty home, even when it’s occupied?

Woman believes fighting $125 fine for missing deadline shouldn't prevent her from claiming $3,400 exemption

Carolina Abramovich has been assessed $3,400 for having a vacant condo, even though it's rented. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

When is a Vancouver home an empty home, even when it's occupied?

When you decide to fight the fine for missing the city's empty homes tax exemption deadline, and the city refuses to let you make a late declaration until the penalty is paid.

That's the catch-22 Carolina Abramovich says she finds herself in.

She said she's being billed $3,400 for having a vacant condo, even though she's had tenants for 11 years — all because she's fighting city hall over a $125 fine.

"There is an issue to me of bullying the little person," said Abramovich. "[It's] a completely real bureaucratic nightmare."

Under the city's empty homes tax, property owners are required to file a declaration every year, claiming non-primary residences are occupied. 

Those claims are subject to a random audit.

5,000 property owners missed deadline

Vancouver imposed the empty homes tax last year, in an attempt to discourage property speculators from buying additional homes, and then leaving them empty while the city suffers through an affordable housing crisis.

Abramovich is among almost 5,000 Vancouver property owners who missed the Feb. 4 deadline to claim an exemption and were assessed a $250 bylaw fine, which was reduced to $125 if they paid by the end of February.

The Vancouver empty homes tax is an attempt to discourage property speculators from buying additional homes, then leaving them vacant while the city suffers from an affordable housing crisis. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The city says 3,022 homeowners have now paid the penalty, and approximately 300 who appealed the fines will be receiving decisions in the mail.

Abramovich said she received a call from city hall March 18 with bad news. Her appeal had been rejected.

She said she feels like she has a gun to her head: either pay the penalty for missing the Feb. 4 deadline, or the city will consider her condo to be vacant — despite the fact that it's occupied by tenants.

Refusal to pay fine 'a point of principle'

Abramovich, 60, lives in a home in Richmond and rents out a condo in Vancouver.

She was out of the country for four months, coincidentally returning on the deadline to file for Vancouver's empty homes tax exemption — Feb. 4.

The semi-retired research scientist admits it was a mistake to miss the deadline, but says the city's warning notices were mailed to her tenant in the Vancouver condo, not her Richmond home address.

When Abramovich called Vancouver city hall the next day, she was told she had to pay the reduced $125 bylaw fine for missing the deadline.

If she paid, she would be eligible to make a late declaration — a new, second deadline introduced by the city this year, to cut down on a long and cumbersome complaint process that bogged down appeals last year, the first year of the tax.

But Abramovich refused to pay "on a point of principle," saying the $125 fine shouldn't be linked to her right to file for an exemption.

Vancouver property owners who missed the Feb. 4 exemption deadline are assumed to have vacant properties and have received empty homes tax notices. (Eric Rankin, CBC)

Now the City of Vancouver has issued a $3,400 empty homes tax on the condo — the standard one per cent of the assessed value — even though the rental unit is occupied.

"It's a double whammy…. It's like, 'We're just trying to get as much money as we can. We don't care if it's empty or not. We'll just tax you anyway.'"

Abramovich draws a parallel to filing income tax: you only face a penalty for filing late if you owe money to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Bylaw fine 'intended as incentive': city

The city of Vancouver doesn't see it that way.

"The bylaw fine doesn't have any relationship to whether the property is vacant or occupied," said Melanie Kerr, Vancouver's director of financial services.

"The city needs a cut-off date so that we can move forward with the rest of the program," Kerr said, adding the bylaw fine is intended as an incentive to file a declaration by the deadline.

Kerr said those who missed the exemption deadline are given two options: pay the fine, or dispute it — and still be able to apply online for a late declaration.

In other words, refusing to pay the fine doesn't preclude a property owner from filing for an exemption.

But Abramovich said when she started the dispute process and tried to file for a tax exemption on the City of Vancouver website, her application was constantly rejected — and she received a message saying she first had to pay the fine.

Kerr said there will be a review of how things went this year.

Shortly after issuing that statement to CBC News, Abramovich said she got a call from the city, saying her file has been reopened.

She was suddenly able to file for an exemption online.

"This was bureaucracy at its finest," said Abramovich.


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.