Vacancy Taxes

So it appears like Toronto will be following Vancouver’s lead. This past year, Vancouver instituted a vacancy tax. Aimed at putting a damper on ever-rising real estate prices, Vancouver will be applying an added to tax to homes that aren’t used as a permanent residence. Toronto, also having stupid-high real estate prices, is hoping to achieve the same thing.

To me, this seems like a really good idea in concept that will actually just be dumb and ineffectual. I don’t like the idea of communities being hollowed out because homes are allowed to sit semi-vacant. I don’t like the sprawl that it helps cause, and I don’t like the idea of a downtown having some fraction of the population it should have. You want people on the street, in the shops, eating at restaurants, enjoying parks. That’s what a city is.

So, yes, I hope these things work (and I hope they don’t just turn into another tool for racists to stick it to immigrants), but I am very skeptical.

Ottawa, too, has a special tax policy for vacancies…but it’s a bit different. We pay people to keep their properties vacant. The Citizen just reported that in 2016, we paid a total $17M to owners of vacant properties.

Again, this was a little different. These weren’t homes; these were commercial properties. The idea behind this policy is to give owners a break when they can’t find a tenant, and, sure, it may accomplish this, but it also rewards them for failing to find a tenant. This is, likely, part of the reason why the old West Coast Video in Old Ottawa South has been vacant (and dilapidated) for decades.*

It’s an absolutely ridiculous policy. It’s completely backwards. Yes, giving someone a break for 3-6 months while they look for a new tenant might be helpful, but beyond that, we should be charging them more in taxes. Barring extenuating circumstances, we should be punishing people for letting our city go to waste.

Certainly, if you worship at the altar of private property ownership, you might argue that the owners have every right to do whatever they want with their property, or nothing at all. But that completely ignores the harm they are doing to our communities by allowing these plots to rot. Old Ottawa South isn’t some sort of dystopian, Detroit-esque wasteland. It’s a popular, relatively affluent area. There’s no reason that anyone should have been permitted to rot out a hole in the middle of it for decades.

I still don’t know how I feel about the new Vancouver and Toronto policies, but I would cheer heartily if we would adopt such a tax regime for commercial properties.

Of course, our politicians would have to be willing to stand up to business owners for that to happen.

*I went buy today, and there’s a different sign on the awning. I have no idea if this means anything is there. It looked closed, but it’s Sunday, so maybe there’s something operating there during the week.

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