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The Occupancy Tax – An Argument for Taxing Property based on Vacancy

1 Dec

Like many scientific bodies, StatsCan has suffered horridly at the hands of the Conservative government, and is left with limited resources to assess issues such as the impacts, real or false, of off shore investors on the affordability of real estate in Canadian cities.

Yet while Statscan data is limited, bodies such as the MLS have cobbled together data that demonstrates single family homes, duplexes, and large condos in the City of Vancouver, Richmond, and the North Shore have become detached from the rest of the real estate market and are no longer related to real incomes of people living in the GVRD. Furthermore, while no formal data exists, inhabitants of many of these neighbourhoods attest to quiet streets and empty unoccupied houses, while small local store owners complain of fewer clientele. This of course is not a phenomenon limited to the GVRD, it is also happening in the cities of other stable western democracies – Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, San Francisco. Some of these cities have reacted to the rise in vacant properties and prices by contemplating occupancy taxes to discourage owners from leaving homes empty.

I believe it is time for British Columbia to do the same thing, to add an occupancy tax to residential property tax bills. Each home would be charged this tax; however, all landlords and resident owners would be exempt from paying it if the property in question was occupied or tenanted for at least half of the year. Proving occupancy would be based on a trust system, similar to the homeowner grant; however, it would be enforced with steep fines and criminal charges for false claims. A small audit team would conduct random audits of properties in B.C. to ensure compliance. If faced with an audit, owners would prove compliance by showing a B.C. rental lease with a tenant, bank statements, utility bills, and correspondence from Revenue Canada proving someone was living there.

While I remain convinced the best way to bring affordability is through upzoning, there is much to be said about how an occupancy tax can reduce the amount of vacant properties, while also financing the construction of lower priced housing stock. If such a tax is implemented, it must be clearly explained it will not affect the wallets of renters, resident owners, and landlords, as they can all claim the full rebate on the tax.