Opinion: Tuesday decision could bring relief for homeowners who feel they were hit unfairly with empty home tax after they missed deadlines.
DAN FUMANO (PROVINCE) - Some Vancouver homeowners previously left with no recourse after complaining they had been unfairly hit with the empty homes tax will now have another chance for justice.
Vancouver’s council voted Tuesday to approve staff recommendations for tweaks to the empty-home-tax bylaw, seeking to improve “fairness” and “alignment with the intent of the tax,” by reducing the number of homeowners stuck with the tax when they shouldn’t be. For owners whose properties were subject to the tax after they missed declaration deadlines for 2017 and/or 2018, this means they can now file complaints, and, if successful, could be eligible for refunds.
Vancouver’s empty homes tax, which came into effect for 2017 under the previous council and was described as the “first of its kind in North America,” has since generated millions of dollars for affordable housing initiatives. It was intended to encourage the conversion of underutilized properties into long-term homes, and has been recognized as a success on that front, by sources both inside and outside city hall. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s most recent rental market report for Vancouver showed almost 6,000 condo units added to the long-term rental market between 2018 and 2019, citing government policies as a likely factor in this “unprecedented shift.”
But while many supported the tax’s goals, the city has acknowledged there was also a problem with it: The bylaw, as written, did not allow for late declarations after a cut-off point. To avoid the tax, property owners need to declare their properties were either occupied, or eligible for an exemption such as major renovations or the owner’s hospitalization. And while declarations were filed for more than 99 per cent of properties, hundreds went undeclared for reasons including confusion, incorrect mailing addresses or major life events like medical issues.
Some of those owners have said that even though their home was occupied or otherwise exempt, they were still assessed the full tax because they missed the deadline to declare, and the subsequent late-declaration deadline. After that, they were told, they had no recourse, regardless of their reason for missing the deadlines.
Those aggrieved homeowners included Jason Weselowski, who told Postmedia News last month that he had missed both the initial and late-declaration deadlines in 2018 because of his hospitalization for cancer treatment. Weselowski found himself on the hook for more than $8,000, he said, with no apparent chance for remedy.
Weselowski was optimistic Tuesday that council’s decision could give him the chance for relief.
He’s still fighting cancer, he said Tuesday, “and it’s definitely been hard, with the COVID-19 restrictions, I’ve had a number of procedures that have been put off.”
“But I’m feeling the healthiest I have in years, so I guess I’m going to be alive to get my refund, hopefully.”
The tax was initially set as an extra levy of one per cent of a property’s assessed value, but, last November, Vancouver’s current council hiked the rate to 1.25 per cent for 2020.
In addition to allowing complaints for older cases from 2017 and 2018, council’s decision Tuesday will also extend the late-declaration deadline going forward from December to July of the following year.
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