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A derelict duplex house sits boarded up on William street in Vancouver April 27, 2015. The house has been sold and will be torn down and redeveloped by the new owner.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver is considering a plan to solve one of its thorniest public mysteries: How many houses and condos in the city are being left empty.

The city's chief housing officer has proposed that Vancouver start a digital registry where members of the public can report on whether they think a property has been left vacant.

The city is also requesting custom data from BC Hydro and Statistics Canada to try to assess what exactly is going on, said Mukhtar Latif in a recent memo to councillors.

The vacant-home issue – which is linked to a belief that foreign investors are buying properties and leaving them empty because they're speculating or rich enough to simply bank their holdings – has been simmering and occasionally boiling in Vancouver since the early 1990s.

That's when the city's post-Expo condo boom got under way and one developer marketed a building exclusively in Hong Kong.

The issue also got a lot of traction in last fall's civic election, when the left-wing COPE party proposed charging some kind of vacant-home fee or forcing the owners to rent out their valuable space in the near-zero-vacancy city.

To date, no one has been able to identify a definitive way of figuring out what is being left vacant long-term.

Even so, the idea of a public-complaints registry isn't getting a warm reception from councillors with any of the city's political parties.

Some say a lot of the angst about vacant homes is propelled by a mistaken belief that Asian investors are buying up the city and leaving their places empty. They're also not thrilled with the idea of residents reporting on their neighbours.

"It sounds like 1984 to me," said Non-Partisan Association Councillor Elizabeth Ball. "Who wants the public reporting on others?"

She also said she doesn't buy the story that Vancouver homes are being left to rot by foreign speculators.

"It's so easy to hate the other, isn't it? I know lots of people are truly convinced Asian buyers are responsible for this, but I just don't believe it."

Councillor Geoff Meggs, with the ruling Vision Vancouver party, said he also is very uncomfortable with the way people link the city's high prices or vacant homes to Asians.

But he said he thinks the city's efforts to ascertain exactly what is going on could be helpful for the public.

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr said she's not sure that a public-complaint mechanism is the most scientific or best way of getting at this difficult public issue.

"I'm sure a lot of people will be worried about neighbours spying on them."

The city's building inspectors routinely go after owners whose vacant properties are hazardous or unkempt. From 2010 to 2013, city inspectors dealt with fewer than 50 houses a year. In 2014, the number jumped to 85.

In his memo to councillors, Mr. Latif warned that homes are left vacant for any number of reasons. They could be going through probate, emptied out so the owner can do renovations, being used as a city home during the week by someone commuting from the suburbs or beyond, or be owned by someone who has been in hospital for a long time.

Illustrating Mr. Latif's point, the Vancouver Special that is listed at the top of a local website, Beautiful Empty Homes, is owned by a builder from the North Shore.

Tomasz Pryl, who bought the house on William Street a couple of years ago, said it's empty because he's waiting for his permits so he can build a new duplex.

He didn't want to rent it out in the meantime because he was worried about what would happen when he told them to leave. "I would have to pay too much money to compensate."

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