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Rooftops of houses in the Kitsilano neighbourhood and the downtown core are seen in 2017. Vancouver announced a tax on vacant homes in 2016 as property values climbed by as much as 30 per cent in a single year.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Almost 8,500 Vancouver homeowners either declared that their properties were empty for much of last year or failed to confirm that their units are occupied, making them potentially liable for paying the city's precedent-setting empty-homes tax.

However, that number is significantly lower than previous estimates of Vancouver's empty homes, which have long been blamed for constraining the city's housing supply and sending prices skyward. The discrepancy is sure to provoke accusations that either people are making false declarations or that the empty-homes crisis was never as bad as some claimed.

And the number of owners who actually pay Vancouver's empty-home tax – at a rate of 1 per cent of a property's assessed value – may end up being far less, because an unknown number of those owners have asked for exemptions, according to information released by the city Tuesday.

That means it's impossible to have a true picture of tax revenue, observers say.

"Until we find out if the exemptions are 500 or 5,000, it's difficult to say how much money the city will raise from this tax and how many people really are just banking in real estate here," said Michael Geller, an architect and developer.

Mr. Geller has been critical of the new tax because of the way it catches long-time B.C. residents with second-home condos in the city instead of true speculative investors.

The city announced a tax on vacant homes in 2016 as property values climbed by as much as 30 per cent in a single year. Average prices for detached homes in the city have climbed well above $2-million. The vacancy tax was in addition to a suite of provincial measures, notably a tax on foreign buyers, which was recently increased to 20 per cent, as well as a newly announced tax targeting out-of-province owners.

Property owners had until March 5 to declare whether their properties were occupied for at least half of last year. Owners can be exempted from the tax, even if they occupy the apartment or house only part-time and have a principal residence elsewhere, if the title changed hands during the year, if their strata doesn't allow rentals or if they work in Vancouver at least 180 days of the year, among other reasons.

Vancouver's new statistics put the number of declared empty or underused homes somewhat below the number that a citywide study of electrical use found two years ago.

That study pegged the number of houses and apartments with no sign of habitation for 12 months or more at 10,800.

It's also dramatically below a second number that gets used as a proxy for empty homes, the 25,502 units identified by the May 10, 2016, census as not occupied or occupied by foreign or temporary residents.

However, that figure was criticized for including a high number of basement suites, as well as suites likely rented to students during the university year and newly constructed apartment buildings or houses that haven't been occupied yet.

Of the owners whose homes were empty or underused, about 61 per cent were condos and 34 per cent were detached homes, with multifamily dwellings and other forms of housing making up the rest.

Those figures include about 2,100 homeowners who didn't file any declaration.

The city statistics showed that Coal Harbour had the highest number of apartments identified as empty or underused, with about 2,200 declarations from that area. That waterfront area next to Stanley Park has been marketed as a luxury second-home resort area for a couple of decades to people from around the world.

But the West End and Shaughnessy had the highest percentages, with 8 per cent of homes in those areas declared empty. Oakridge was next, with 228 homes declared empty, 6 per cent of the area.

Shaughnessy resident Bob Angus was dubious about the numbers for his neighbourhood of 50 years. "That sounds pretty high to me," said Mr. Angus, noting that many houses might appear to be empty but aren't because the owners are spending the winter in the warm American South, as he is.

Simon Fraser University public-policy professor Josh Gordon said that, although the number of acknowledged empty homes appears low, it's still significant. "First, that's still a large number of units that have been identified. And that number won't reflect that units that have been encouraged back into the system."

Prof. Gordon also said the numbers "won't reflect those who are not honest" and who declared their home a principal residence or rented out when it wasn't.

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