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The number of housing units not occupied by 'usual' residents fell by 10 per cent in the city of Vancouver to 23,011 over the past five years, according to a new analysis of census data.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

An indicator of vacant homes is on the rise in Toronto and on the decline in Vancouver, according to a new analysis of census data.

The number of housing units not occupied by “usual” residents – defined as Canadians and permanent residents living in their usual place of residence – rose by 40 per cent in the city of Toronto to 92,346 over the past five years. Meanwhile, the level fell by 10 per cent in the city of Vancouver to 23,011 over the same period, according to calculations by Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s city program, who is known for his research on empty homes in Vancouver.

The 2021 census does not break out whether homes are sitting vacant in Canada, but it provides the total number of housing units in the country and the total number of housing units occupied by “usual residents.” The difference in the two figures includes homes that are vacant, as well as short-term rentals and homes that are temporarily occupied by foreigners or Canadians with a primary residence elsewhere.

Mr. Yan’s review found the divergence between Toronto and Vancouver was striking and said it showed that Vancouver’s empty home tax, stricter Airbnb rental rules and anti-real estate speculation measures are working to ensure fewer homes are sitting vacant.

“Public policy matters. I strongly attribute this change to a combination of local policies like the vacant home tax and short-term rental policies,” he said. “The difference between Vancouver and Toronto was remarkable in terms of how different their trends were.”

The pandemic-related shutdowns and travel restrictions have likely influenced the home occupancy numbers when Statistics Canada started collecting the census data in May, 2021.

In the city of Vancouver, homes not occupied by usual residents accounted for 7 per cent of the housing units last year compared with 8.2 per cent in 2016, according to Mr. Yan’s analysis. The drop in both the number and percentage marks the first decline in two decades.

Vancouver has long had to contend with a lack of affordable housing, low rental vacancies and rampant real estate investor speculation. Vancouver first introduced its empty home tax in 2017 during the country’s previous real estate boom. The tax of 1 per cent on the assessed value of a property was designed to compel real estate investors to make their homes available to rent long term. Vancouver’s empty home tax has since tripled to 3 per cent.

Meanwhile, in the city of Toronto, homes not occupied by usual residents accounted for 7.4 per cent of all private dwellings last year compared with 5.6 per cent in 2016. That was the first increase since 2006, according to Mr. Yan, who used population and private dwelling data from the 2021 census, which was released last week.

Toronto is also grappling with worsening housing affordability and low rental vacancies. The typical home price is 52-per-cent more expensive than January, 2020, and monthly rental costs are also climbing. Toronto’s 1-per-cent empty home tax went into effect in January and the city has also tried to make it harder for homeowners to put their entire homes on Airbnb and other short-term rental sites.

“Making empty housing stock available for long-term renters is an immediate way to stimulate supply,” said Heather Tremain, chief executive with Options For Homes, a non-profit developer that provides shared-equity mortgages for low-income earners so they can buy a home.

“Anything that helps to create some additional housing in the current market is a step in the right direction,” she said.

The federal government has also introduced a proposed 1-per-cent tax on empty homes but it only applies to foreign owners of real estate, not domestic owners.

The census does not provide specific data on empty homes.

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