Oak Bay seeks tax option as vacancy tool

Comprehensive strategy urged to address tight rental market and surging house prices

In order to have a tax “tool” to fight the expected ripple effect of a vacancy tax expected in Vancouver, Oak Bay will pen a letter to the Minister of Finance.

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The letter will request an appropriate and effective response to the problem of record low vacancy rates and lack of affordable housing in our communities, and ask that any amendments to the Vancouver Charter be made available equally to all other municipalities in the province through an amendment to the Community Charter.

“What it prompted for me anyways, is we have to recognize that we can’t address these housing issues that people are concerned about just at the municipal level. We have to start reaching out to work with the province to address vacancy rates, demolitions and the rising house costs,” said Coun. Tara Ney, who proposed Oak Bay jump into the fray during the July 18 meeting of council.

“Whether we would want to use it or not remains to be seen. (Right now) even if we wanted to utilize that mechanism we wouldn’t be able to. There’s no mechanism to do it at the local level.”

Ney made the motion in response to a letter by Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head. He suggests that allowing Vancouver to implement the vacancy tax without widespread regional opportunities is piecemeal and fragmented; but the vacancy tax policy by itself is a piecemeal strategy to the housing crisis.

“We need a comprehensive strategy with a menu of options to use in our communities,” Ney said. “It needs to be done more comprehensively. The problems need to be articulated and the options available to us presented. We would like to get ahead of the problem rather than be behind the eight ball.”

The B.C. legislature was recalled for a rare summer sitting Monday (July 25) to give the City of Vancouver power to impose a tax on vacant homes in response to growing concerns about housing affordability.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong called Vancouver’s plan to tax unoccupied homes a “reasonable step” to try to push more units into the tight rental market.

The government is expected to introduce amendments to the Vancouver Charter to provide clear authority to impose such a tax without the city having to try to camouflage it as some sort of business tax, de Jong said. “It is about trying to increase the supply of rental accommodation,” he said. “That is something the province and the government take very seriously.”

Victoria councillors also hope to implement a similar tax to increase the city’s rental stock.

That council passed a motion to have Mayor Lisa Helps write Premier Christy Clark and the ministers of housing, finance and community sport and cultural development to amend the community charter (that the City of Victoria is governed under) to enable municipalities across B.C. to implement a tax on vacant properties.

Coun. Michelle Kirby noted the province only saw fit to apply changes to Vancouver and not reflect the Community Charter that governs other municipalities.

“It is impacting us as well as the Okanagan,” Kirby said. “It’s unfortunate they left it such a narrow focus … I think there will be a call from several areas of the province.”

Coun. Kevin Murdoch, acting mayor for the meeting, called it an absurd approach. “Yet more absurd unfortunately is that the province has agreed to approve this only in Vancouver,” he said, adding other municipalities need to have the same tools in hand.

“I do think it is a piecemeal way of going about things and I would really like to see something in a more regional level,” agreed Coun. Hazel Braithwaite.

Coun. Tom Croft was among those who wondered if Oak Bay needed this particular “tool.”

“I’d like to see how the Vancouver charter goes,” he said.

Ney said support for the letter shows council is concerned that the vacancy tax by itself is a piecemeal approach to address the problem of vacancy rates and unaffordability of housing “that appears to be spilling over globalized markets and into our community.”

Additionally, “the motion also recognizes that housing issues we are experiencing today are complex and require co-ordination and partnerships with all three levels of government,” she said.