Time to consider vacancy tax on empty TO properties, says councillor

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A Toronto-based software developer/designer caused quite a stir recently after he publicized a photographic study of vacant Toronto condo towers that clearly shows the extent of the problem of vacant condos. Jaco Joubert photographed 15 downtown condo towers at night over the course of a year to monitor when the lights were on to determine whether or not they were occupied. The camera never lies and it did show we have a problem.

It comes at a time when there demand for rental units is outstripping availability and is causing a spike in rents. This study prompted Toronto’s Ward 9 Councillor Ana Bailao to wonder if it was time for the city to consider imposing a vacancy tax on empty residential properties as a way to increase the supply of rental housing.

“It is imperative that we move faster. What is the feasibility? What is the data? What are the numbers?” she said in a media interview.

Bailao said the point of a vacancy tax is not to raise funds but mainly to encourage people to rent vacant units and to use homes as spaces in which to live as opposed to places for investment.

The city could use any funds generated from the tax to build affordable housing, she added. She noted that the city of Vancouver raised an estimated $38 million in the first year of its Empty Homes Tax that was first imposed in 2016.

In July 2017, council directed city staff to inquire about the “possible public policy benefits” of a vacancy tax and to figure how the city would identify vacant units. It could be mandatory for property owners to declare vacant units or homes, it could be voluntary, or identification could come from complaints.

The councillor said data needs to be gathered first and the city cannot afford to have thousands of residential units vacant, whether it’s 2,000 or 5,000 vacant units, she added: “We need to do everything we possibly can to bring them back to the market.”

In total, Joubert took photos of 1,362 units across the 15 buildings. Of these units, he determined that 76 were empty, which means 5.6 per cent were vacant, according to his calculations.

Joubert said if the 5.6 per cent vacancy rate holds true across Toronto, then the city has a significant number of units currently empty.

Affordable housing has turned into a major political issue which we will be hearing about more in the months and years to come. Creating more housing is one part of the solution, the other is ensuring that the existing stock is utilized. -CINEWS

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