The British Columbia government will "intensively examine" the possibility of a tax on empty homes after an ultimatum from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who has called for such a measure to address the city's housing crisis and warned he will go it alone if needed.
Finance Minister Michael de Jong met briefly with Mr. Robertson on Monday, telling media afterward that their respective staff will, in the next couple of weeks, come up with a detailed proposal for the province to consider.
Mr. de Jong said he was pleased that Vancouver's proposed vacancy tax is centred on the issue of supply – creating an incentive for people to rent out their vacant properties – but reiterated his government's hesitation to impose a new tax. If approved, it would likely make Vancouver the only city in Canada with such a tax. "I'll be the first to say to you, candidly, I have been conscious, the government has been conscious, about drawing on taxation authority to address the housing challenges," he said.
Last week, Mr. Robertson announced that the city was prepared to introduce a tax on empty homes "with or without the help of the B.C. government." The mayor's proposal would see the creation of a new business tax aimed at persuading owners of empty properties to rent them out. For any that don't, money collected from the tax would go to affordable housing initiatives, the mayor said.
Mr. Robertson had given the B.C. government an Aug. 1 deadline to begin collaborating on a new vacancy tax.
On Monday, the mayor said staff will explore ways to ensure the tax is fair. They will examine the definition of a vacant home, how the tax rate would be set and how an appeal process would work.
Such a tax was floated in Vancouver two years ago when long-shot mayoral candidate Meena Wong gained some traction with her proposal to charge some people for the privilege of letting property sit empty in the city. The spectre of nosy bureaucrats snooping on people's homes and a clear lack of data on the scope of the problem led few in power to embrace the tax.
Mr. Robertson said he has been speaking with Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle about the Australian city's housing affordability crunch and the feasibility of such a tax. Melbourne has also been mulling the idea of a vacancy tax to help fund various social programs.
"They're in a similar affordability crunch in dealing with a housing crisis similar to Vancouver," Mr. Robertson said. "[I've been] comparing notes with another big-city mayor who's confronted with many of the same challenges. We are seeing and hearing about this in many big cities around the world right now."
The city and province have planned to discuss the matter again in two weeks.
A recent city-commissioned study found that about 10,800 homes in Vancouver were left empty for a year or more. Vancouver's rental vacancy rate is 0.6 per cent, according to the city. Housing experts say a healthy vacancy rate is 3 to 5 per cent.
With a report from Mike Hager