Empty homes activist calls for penalties

City of Vancouver developing site to report vacant homes

James Macdonald, a contributor to the popular Beautiful Empty Homes Tumblr site, is “encouraged” the city is developing a digital site where Vancouver residents can report vacant homes. But he hopes the information will be made public and he wants a public benefit extracted from non-resident buyers.

Mukhtar Latif, the city’s chief housing officer, informed council in an April 20 memo that the reporting site is in the works.

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Latif said the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, in addition to a review of studies and potential data sources about vacant homes, has issued a tender for consulting assistance in investigating this issue, including how it impacts the “vibrancy of neighbourhoods.” The department also is working with city of Vancouver Communications, 311, and community groups to develop a site where “the public can report vacant homes in a coherent fashion, thus allowing us to potentially match it up with B.C. Hydro data.”

Concern about vacant homes has climbed as property values have soared, vacancies have dropped, and residents with average incomes have been driven out of the real estate market and from Vancouver.

Macdonald started Beautiful Empty Homes on Tumblr last August with other Dunbar residents out of concern there are too many empty homes in the city while families and homeless people are looking for a place to live.

About 100 so-called empty homes have been posted on the site, with their locations mapped. The most recent post, in January, is of a Vancouver Special described as a “Commercial Drive Casa,” which the poster said has been vacant for more than a year.

Macdonald said the city’s plan for a reporting site sounds good, although it’s belated.

“I guess we think homes should be lived in by people and if people do want to speculate, which happens globally now, it’s up to the government to get a public benefit out of that,” he said. “Like a punitive property tax assessment on an empty home or in Hong Kong they have a surcharge if you’re a non-resident or a company that’s purchasing a residential home, you pay a stamp duty and that money is invested in public housing or in parks [or something]…. And if these buyers ever want to actually come to Vancouver, they would benefit just as much as everybody else from better roads, better public infrastructure.”

Latif’s memo lists 10 possible reasons a property might be left vacant such as development timing; that the home is in the process of being sold or rented; that it’s been vacated in anticipation of being renovated; that it’s being flipped; that it’s a domestic investment property; that it’s an international investment property; that it’s used for “hoteling,” which means the owner might work in the city but has a long commute so he or she has purchased a property to live in during the week; that the owner is on sabbatical or is a snowbird; or the owner is in hospital or in care.

Latif wrote there is limited research and data sources available and that the two most recent studies relate only to vacant condominiums — one by Urban Futures in 2011, which found that 6.7 Vancouver condos and purpose-built rentals are unoccupied, and another by Andy Yan of Bing Thom Architects. That 2009 Hydro Study found that five to eight per cent of downtown condos are “dark.”

“We have had difficulty in identifying data sources that can provide the exact numbers of vacant single family homes, length of time properties are being left vacant and reasons for why they are vacant,” Latif wrote. “CHMC are also in a similar position and we are in discussions on how best we can work together to understand the issue. We have identified B.C. Hydro data as a potential source of information for single family homes that are vacant. This data will not provide cause but will establish the denominator of homes which appear to be vacant for prolonged periods of time.”

Vision Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang said it’s important to get accurate information before acting.

“There’s been a consistent narrative for a number of years now about empty homes and foreign ownership, which is driving up the cost of housing in Vancouver. I often get emails that there are all these empty houses and if they weren’t empty, they’d be used by people, there would be a lot more product on the market, prices would drop and so on and so forth,” he said. “It gets to the point that we want to actually figure out if it’s true or not… Really what we want to do is collect really good information and metrics on it and see if this is actually a problem. Then, if it is, if housing is simply being treated as a commodity, then we can take that information to the federal and provincial governments and see if they want to do something about it. If it isn’t, then we put that one to rest.”

Jang said people shouldn’t jump to conclusions if they spot what appears to be a vacant home.

Last year, his own home was identified by someone as being vacant.

Jang’s lived in it for more than 20 years, but he moved out for eight months to renovate it.

“I’m a third generation Canadian, born and raised in Vancouver, and somebody sent me an email saying, ‘I think this house is empty and I see an Asian guy in a suit in there and he must be the real estate agent or a foreign investor,’” he recalled. “And it was my house.”

Jang said there are legitimate reasons for a house to be vacant — not all are related to foreign speculation. In some cases, a family might be holding a property for a child who’s getting married.

Even if a house is in a company name, he added, it’s not necessarily an investment property.

“There are properties owned by Chinese clan associations, which are used for their members. It’s not in anybody’s name, but a company or clan name,” he said.

“So it’s about finding the best data, like using Hydro data and correlating Hydro data with so-called empty houses identified by the general public to see if they even match up,” he said. 

As for whether information the city gathers will be made public, Jang said due to privacy concerns it will be handled by a third party because they’re dealing with individual addresses. But he suspects information such as the number of empty homes per neighbourhood could likely be released.

The tender for a consultant to assist with the city’s investigation of the vacant housing issue closes May 12. The city anticipates the consultant will begin immediately following the decision to award the contract.

Twitter.com/naoibh

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