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Empty-homes tax might go even higher than original two per cent proposed, with higher penalties

September 20th, 2016 · 6 Comments

Vancouver councillors debated the proposed empty-homes tax this morning, with some unexpected results. (Well, at least to me, so perhaps I’m clueless.)

The NPA councillors came out AGAINST the tax, which I thought would have been seen as very popular with their base. (See my story for their various reasons.)

And then Vision councillors started making noises about considering an even higher rate for the empty-homes tax than the max two per cent of assessed value that staff had recommended. Plus penalties higher than the current $10,000 that is the most Vancouver can charge anyone for any bylaw violation.

Things continue to evolve.

Along with all that, many more questions and unique scenarios continued to arise. Just to take you through various bits and pieces I’ve now learned:

  • Airbnb doesn’t count as occupancy. So if someone gets audited and they’re not living at the unit, they need to prove they’re renting it out to avoid the tax. And showing revenue from Airbnb rentals won’t count.
  • As long as one unit on a residential (single-family-house-type) property is occupied, the others can be vacant. So someone could live in a laneway house and leave the main house empty and not be charged the tax. An owner who decides to leave a basement suite or laneway house empty won’t be charged.
  • Not decided yet how many months someone will have to occupy a unit to avoid the tax. Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, the new general manager of community services, was suggesting nine months might be the cut-off.

Happy to try to answer other questions you might come up with about unique scenarios.

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Proposed new regulations for Airbnb and others coming next week

September 20th, 2016 · 2 Comments

It’s getting confusing, all the new housing taxes popping up here and there. Hope to help you keep it straight, especially since some cases will fall under multiple taxes and regulatory regimes.

(Just imagine a foreign investor who buys a unit in Vancouver and decideds to rent it out only through Airbnb. Three new laws may apply: provincial tax on foreign investors; empty-homes tax on the unit because something rented out as Airbnb doesn’t count as occupancy; and then whatever regs come in for Airbnb.)

Anyhoo, back to the subject at hand. So the city will be proposing some kind of regulatory system for short-term rentals in a report out next week. Details are still being worked out, but from everything I can gather, in my story here, the proposal will restrict any rentals to people who are renting out their primary residences (either a spare room in there or the whole house when they’re out of town.)

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Vancouver sets off into the choppy waters with an empty-homes tax, one of a few cities around world

September 15th, 2016 · 2 Comments

So here we go. Vancouver will become the first city in Canada and one of a very select group around the world to charge an empty-homes tax as a way of trying to curb the effects of speculative investment and to get some housing stock back on the market.

I wrote two stories this week on same, one a look at a particular case of an empty house on the west side — presumably the kind of place that will be targeted — and the complicated story behind it. The other, post-announcement, offered assessments from experts about how effective this new tax that relies on self-reporting is likely to be, considering the city does not have the clout, jailing power, or staff of the Canada Revenue Agency.

The tax is already drawing strong responses. Tom Davidoff says it’s great. The official COPE Twitter account sneers at Mayor Gregor Robertson for stealing their idea. Longtime COPE activist Tim Louis says the tax is weak and ineffective. Friends of mine are laughing bitterly at the idea that people will voluntarily report something that could cost them tens of thousands of dollars a year in extra taxes.

We’ll see. As the mayor says, the move is partly symbolic, a signal that Vancouver is not as open for business as it once was. And it’s far from unique. Other cities, which have also seen the numbers of vacant apartments go up while they’re experiencing a shortage of housing, have been looking at vacancy taxes or actually implementing them. Jerusalem doubled the taxes on “ghost apartments” earlier this year, to the dismay of the local construction industry, whose people said the country had invited people, mainly wealthy American Jews, to invest in just that kind of housing.


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Vancouver’s new immigrants not here to make money but to find a better quality of life — and policymakers haven’t caught up

September 6th, 2016 · 14 Comments

As some of you sharper readers may have noticed, I’ve become interested in our significant new bloc of immigrants, those people from mainland China.

(Okay, I’ve always been interested. I got an Asia Pacific Foundation fellowship in 1990 that allowed me to live in China for three months, another different fellowship that took me to Hong Kong briefly in 1994, and I’ve watched the migrations from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China ever since, occasionally reporting on them)

There are so many people writing about this new group, but the overall coverage has been strange and dehumanizing. No one ever actually talks to any of these new immigrants or tries to understand them. They’re just “investors” here to “park their money.” Or they’re outright criminals.

Undoubtedly there are people like that from China. The legitimate stories about crimes or abuses deserve to be covered and some other reporters are doing that. Good on them.

But I’m interested in the people who are coming here, why they’re here and what they make of their life in Canada. I wrote a big story about a month ago that was the result of several months of talking to more than a dozen people and trying to get a handle on their lives in China and here. (It’s here.)

It’s a little strange that more reporters haven’t done some of this. Usually that’s a first move in journalism. If there’s an interesting sub-group in town, you go out and talk to people and find out who they are. I know some fellow reporters haven’t because they’re worried about exposing this group to the blasts of hatred that unmistakably proliferate on social media. I’m hoping more people will start to do more reporting on this new group of immigrants (about 150,000 — three times the number from Taiwan) in future.

Even at the universities, there isn’t much exploration going on that I know of.  I asked UBC geography professor David Ley, who did wonderful, sensitive, and empathetic research on the new immigrants arriving from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1990s (much of it in his Millionaire Migrants book), if he knew of anyone doing research on this new group. He didn’t.

But, over in sociology, it turned out someone was working on something.

My story today is a far-too-condensed summary of a new study, where UBC PhD student Jing Zhao interviewed almost three dozen people who were about to immigrate or had immigrated to Vancouver, and sociology professor Nathanael Lauster analyzed and co-wrote the results. (The full 31-page study is here, for those wanting more details or source material to quibble with my reporting.)

They found, as I had, that some in this group, despite their privileges (they’re usually well educated and are comfortable financially, if not the billionaires and fuerdai so beloved of many reporters), see themselves as refugees from China, with its rigid education system, terrible air and water pollution, dicey food quality, and restrictive policies on having children.

And they don’t care that much about starting new businesses or getting jobs here because that’s not why they came here. It’s a turnaround from the way many, many academics and policymakers think about immigration, which is usually seen as being strictly about improving economic life. As Lauster says, it’s about time we understand that and maybe adapt our thinking about who these new trans-national immigrants are.


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How Seattle has not just encouraged rental but used a tax-relief program to reduce rents for working but low-income tenants

August 30th, 2016 · 6 Comments

Cities all around North America are struggling to figure out how to provide housing for their lower-income residents —  not the poorest of the poor, but people making less than the median income for the region. Housing for that group is disappearing and not much new is appearing. A lot of federal/state/provincial programs focus on putting money into housing at the low end.

I’ve been intrigued by Seattle ever since Hani Lamman from Cressey told me about how much rental they’re building there, and the different kinds of programs Seattle uses to reduce rental rates.

Seattle’s not doing everything perfectly. Their street homeless count is close to 3,000. There are no rent controls — renter-protection efforts are focused on making sure landlords don’t discriminate against tenants.

And American cities have advantages we don’t. Their developers never stopped building rental, the way Canadian ones did. (No one can quite seem to figure this why. We had a long debate on Twitter last night, trying to figure it out and there was no definitive conclusion.) As well, the federal government provides a big chunk of assistance through a low-income housing tax credit, which gives investors a tax break for investing in low-income housing.

But Seattle has also been pushing aggressively to create new rentals and rentals that rent for below-market prices. My story here summarizes some of what they’re doing.

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Building housing that battles bedbugs, cigarette smoke, floods, and more: how a developer and non-profit group teamed up to do that

August 29th, 2016 · 5 Comments

I got a tour of the new Jubilee House under construction this March, when it was still hardhat and steel-toed-boot territory, because the people at the 127 Society for Housing wanted me to do what they were doing.

I’ve seen a lot of social-housing buildings in my 20-plus years covering this, but I have to say, I was really impressed with all the new ideas. I couldn’t fit them all into my story here, but they included new anti-bedbug measures, including a baking room for stuff that does get infested, design strategies that make it easier to fix burns and holes in floors and messes on walls, as well as several anti-flood mechanisms. Along with that, the new building includes a new kitchen for making group meals for tenants, a small store that sells basic supplies, and a new library.

BC Housing has already incorporated some of these ideas earlier, but is looking at others it might steal for future projects. Personally, as a mother, there were ideas that I would have liked to see in my own house when my son was at peak teen.

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Second-last gas station in downtown Vancouver put on the market

August 25th, 2016 · 32 Comments

The disappearing gas station is something that has attracted my attention for years. You see the signs of their former selves all over the city, sometimes sitting unused for many years because of the remediation needed (Broadway/Guelph, for example), sometimes instantly snapped up for development (Main/25th).

So of course, I jumped like a rabbit when the Chevron people sent out a little notice saying they are putting three sites up for sale, including the ever-popular Georgia/Bidwell one. My story here.

I’m thinking if enough of them disappear, it will help spur the move to electric cars. I resisted electric in my last purchase two years ago because I was worried that, given my chaotic life, I’d be driven mad trying to find charging stations while I was running to my usual seven appointments a day.

But if gas pumps become just as difficult to find, well, might as well switch.


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Nondescript Broadway property sells for $46 million as part of transit-line land rush

August 23rd, 2016 · 2 Comments

Every time I hear about some crazy price paid for a piece of developable land in the city, it is superceded a few months later by an even crazier price.

The latest was the $46 million paid for 950 West Broadway by someone who appears to be a newbie buyer/developer in town (see story), which was even higher per buildable square foot than the price the Pappajohns paid for the Denny’s site at Broadway and Hemlock. And that was higher than the price someone paid for the Mercedes-Benz site a few years ago. Et cetera. All part of the sudden attraction of Broadway for buyers, as everyone awaits the new transit line.

It’s all kinda nuts, as is everything in Vancouver these days, and I have the luck to record it for posterity.

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One of city’s biggest developers sues city over social housing — and not for the reasons you might think

August 19th, 2016 · 3 Comments

Yep, Concord Pacific, which has worked hand in hand with the City of Vancouver for decades, is suing the city, even asking for an injunction to stop the city from selling a piece of land that Concord says it handed over for social housing. My story here.

Their argument — not fair now to sell it to another developer to compete with Concord projects when it was promised as a community benefit.

Their statement of claim below here.


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More change coming to Chinatown: development sites for sale, sky-high residential rents

August 12th, 2016 · 4 Comments

A sharp observer alerted me yesterday to more signs of change in Chinatown: two key sites (the venerable Tosi’s at 624 Main and the Brickhouse/empty lot/student hostel/Jimi Hendrix shrine assembly at Main and Union) for sale and a new rental building with rents starting at $1,267 for studios.

My story on that here, complete with a chance to observe a slice of life at Tosi’s yesterday afternoon.

But more to do on the changes in Chinatown in the future. Chinatowns everywhere are struggling to figure out how to thrive. There have even been stories from San Francisco, a Chinatown that I thought was among the healthiest, about the proliferation of vacancies.

On another front, one thing I didn’t get an answer on from the city by deadline is how the new Albert Block can charge so much in rent. It was approved under the Rental 100 policy. According to that policy, the rent on an eastside studio can’t be more than $1,260.

At any rate, for those of you who love Tosi’s, Angelo figures he’ll still be operating for about another year at least. (That seems right, as any buyer would likely want to apply to rezone for the higher density and that will take some time.)

So it’s a good time to hop on down with some cash to get your Italian cooking supplies. He had an excellent caciocavallo cheese yesterday, something I’ve never even heard of before.

BTW, to get more about the history of Tosi’s, read my Vancouver Sun pal John Mackie’s excellent story from 2011.

For those wondering, there is no heritage designation for the Tosi’s building. I checked that with the city.

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