Housing affordability is the most important issue for almost half of Vancouver residents, an Insights West poll concluded recently and was reported in The Vancouver Sun this week. This was the highest level of concern over housing reported in the entire Lower Mainland.
The housing “problem is not new to our city, but it certainly makes us a unique case in the country. People may still work in Vancouver, but high real estate prices have forced many of them to establish a home in adjacent cities. They may cast a ballot on Nov. 15, but will do so in a different municipality.
In the early stages of the city’s election campaign, two political parties — the Coalition of Progressive Electors and the Green Party of Vancouver — signalled their intention to deal with one of the lingering issues in the city: empty homes.
An empty house creates many problems. There is no one to rake leaves in the fall, leaving sidewalks untidy. The absence of inhabitants means fewer people are buying coffee or groceries, hurting local businesses.
The property tax is definitely present for homeowners who do not reside in Vancouver. But the reality is these people are not part of the daily life of the city. They are speculators more than members of the community.
Insights West asked Vancouverites this month about a recent debate over levying a tax on people who acquire properties in Vancouver but do not live in them. The idea was extremely popular, with 72 per cent of respondents calling it a “very good” or “good” proposal, and only 18 per cent deeming it “very bad” or “bad.”
Support for such a levy was high across genders (75 per cent for women, 70 per cent for men), all three age groups (from a low of 70 per cent among those aged 55 and over to a high of 76 per cent among those aged 18-34) and all three household incomes brackets (80 per cent in the lowest bracket, 66 per cent among those in households earning $100,000 or more a year).
While we may be unique in Canada, another world-class city is actively looking for ways to deal with empty homes.
New York City, governed by a Democrat for the first time since 1993, is considering a tax on non-resident owners. Mayor Bill de Blasio — elected on a promise to deal with what he calls the “inequality crisis” — is pondering the levy, which would be applied to anyone who spends less than half the year in the city and owns a property appraised at more than $5 million US.
The proposal is far from a done deal. It will require the backing from the two houses of the state legislature, as well as the signature of the governor, before becoming law. The main opponents so far, as expected, are developers and real estate lobbyists.
If discussions about a levy in Vancouver continue after Nov. 15, we can expect similar dissent from the industry. Insights West also found 73 per cent of Vancouverites agreed with the statement: “Developers and lobbyists have too much influence in my municipality.” This proportion is well above the Metro Vancouver average of 68 per cent, and a reminder of the way residents perceive the decision-making process at City Hall.
In the end, while a levy on absentee homeowners is decidedly popular, it will come down to reality and implementation. Just how big the absentee problem is, and what kind of measures should be taken to appease it, are matters that are still open for debate. But the data shows Vancouverites are not thrilled with the prospect of being surrounded by empty houses.
Mario Canseco is vice-president of Insights West’s public affairs division. He writes every second week in The Vancouver Sun’s business section.