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The continuing story of the empty suites

August 11th, 2008 · 3 Comments

In the last episode of this ongoing story, I had given all of you the history of the mythical 18,000 empty condos in Vancouver — a factoid that keeps going around and around. (A blog reader pointed out to me that COPE Coun. David Cadman, as reported at a recent meeting, even said the 18,000 empty condos were all in the West End.)

Here’s my latest reporting on this issue. I talked last month with the city’s longtime housing centre director, Cameron Gray, who has forgotten more about housing policy than most people in Vancouver will ever know. He’s been unable to verify the 18,000 number, but he does say, in spite of that, that there is a problem of empty housing units in the city. No one ones exactly how many there are. The last census in 2006 showed there were 20,641 empty houses, condos, duplexes and whatever in Vancouver proper. Approximately 4-5,000 of them are downtown. (NOT all 18,000.) No one knows whether those are second homes, investor properties kept empty or what. But, says Gray, they’re a worry.

“I still think we have to get a handle on this issue,” says Gray. “Four or five thousand units downtown is not insignificant. I think there is a city issue around vacant buildings.”

Gray didn’t talk about a speculator tax, as Vision Vancouver mayoral hopeful Gregor Robertson has. But he did suggest incentive programs, i.e. tax incentives to encourage investors to rent out properties they own, would be a good idea. Gray also supported the idea, currently being pushed by Victoria city council and others, that strata-owned buildings no longer be allowed to prohibit rentals. (Ontario already has a law like this.) People here often forget that the reason some of the new condos in the city are dark at night is not because evil investors are keeping them empty but because the rules of the building don’t allow rentals. I know that when I had to figure out what to do with my mother’s condo last year when she moved to a seniors’ home, I discovered the strata had bylaws that prohibited rentals for everyone in the building except the first set of owners who had moved in before the rental-ban rule was passed.

Some would argue that’s a good rule, since it encourages people to sell their units to others who will actually live in them. But it does mean that those condo units can never enter the rental pool, which EVERYONE these days is saying has a desperate shortage of stock.

By the way, Robertson has backed away in recent weeks from pushing the speculator tax. In one of my recent chats with him (as he, like his competitor Peter Ladner, logs employment-standards-violating hours meeting with the city’s Very Important People and every branch of every ethnic community), Robertson said he’s leaning more towards incentives than punitive measures as he looks for ways to promote better use of existing rental apartments and the creation of more.

“The speculator tax stirred up lots of debate,” he acknowledged. (Translation: He got pooped on heavily by the opposition and business community.) “It may not be right for Vancouver, even though it’s working in other cities. ” His focus now is on working on projects and collaborations that everyone supports. We’ll see how this unrolls.

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