City mulling tax on vacant homes

The City of Ottawa will look into implementing a tax on homes that are left vacant when they could be housing people, a step Vancouver has taken and Toronto is on the verge of taking.

Goal isn't to raise revenue, but to create more housing, officials say

The Hintonburg Community Association has been tracking boarded-up homes in the neighbourhood like these. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The City of Ottawa will look into implementing a tax on homes that are left vacant when they could be housing people, a step Vancouver has taken and Toronto is on the verge of taking.

City council asked staff this week to study whether such a tax would work in Ottawa, and report back in the spring about asking the provincial government for that power.

The Hintonburg Community Association has been tracking the growing number of houses whose doors and windows remain boarded shut, in some cases years after their tenants were evicted.

The association's treasurer Cheryl Parrott has been talking to the city for more than a decade about the safety issues associated with the vacant buildings, but her main concern now is that they're sitting empty during a housing emergency.

Hintonburg Community Association treasurer Cheryl Parrott is thrilled the city is considering the idea of implementing a tax on vacant homes. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Parrott said several of Hintonburg's boarded-up homes are near Tom Brown Arena, which is currently acting as a respite centre for people at risk during the pandemic. Not far from the arena, people left homeless by a rooming house fire last year lived in tents until their encampment was dismantled.

"It's just so morally wrong that we have these boarded buildings that were perfectly good. They were good, affordable buildings, and people were evicted from those buildings," said Parrott. "Now we have people sleeping two blocks away in makeshift shelters."

She understands the buildings might someday be redeveloped, but would like to see them occupied in the meantime.

Last month, Ottawa's chief bylaw officer told councillors the city has 217 addresses on its list of vacant properties. 

Raising taxes isn't the goal

Vancouver credits revenue generated by a tax it implemented in 2018 for putting more units back on the rental market. That city's "empty homes tax" charges 1.25 per cent of the assessed value of a property that is neither a principal residence nor rented out for at least six months of the year. That's on top of the property tax the owner already pays.

Toronto mayor John Tory pointed to Vancouver's success when he voiced "strong support" Thursday for his city's own plan to implement a vacant home tax in 2022.

Here in Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson said his "timely" motion approved this week could spur property owners into "getting their act together and not allowing these buildings to deteriorate to a point where they become a hazard in the community."

If this property were in Vancouver instead of Ottawa, its owner would be on the hook for an 'empty homes tax' of 1.25 per cent on its assessed value, in addition to the property tax they already pay. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The idea isn't to tax snowbirds who leave their homes empty for the winter, nor sellers whose homes sit on the real estate market for months, Watson said, adding any potential revenue would go toward affordable housing.

"I actually hope we don't bring in a lot of money from a vacant property tax," Coun. Jeff Leiper, whose ward includes Hintonburg, said Wednesday. "The goal of a vacant property tax has to be that properties are not vacant and that they're housing people."

About the Author

Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past 15 years, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

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