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Few Vancouver condo owners selling as vacancy tax looms

Realtor Holly Wood stands on the balcony of a condo that the owner has decided to rent out, in Vancouver on Sunday.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Some Vancouver condo owners faced with having to pay the country's first-ever municipal vacancy tax are planning to lie and see if they get caught.

Others are using creative methods to avoid it, like putting their units in the name of one family member and renting to another.

And some are buckling to the new rules by renting out their multimillion-dollar suites.

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But few are selling to avoid the tax.

That's what realtors, property managers, and other observers of the Vancouver real-estate scene say is happening as the July 1 deadline approaches for owners of second homes to either rent out their units, occupy them, or sell them in order to avoid a tax that could go into the tens of thousands of dollars a year.

"I think the owners are more interested in renting than in giving it up," said Holly Wood, who is licensed as both a realtor, working with Sotheby's International, and a property manager. "I've had an increase among my clients interested in renting."

She has one apartment now on the market for $8,400 a month on Cordova Street in Coal Harbour, an area of Vancouver that's consistently been identified as a neighbourhood with the highest number of unoccupied and second-home apartments in the city.

Ms. Wood expects the unit, which the owner previously used only part-time, will go fast.

She had another unit in a downtown hotel-and-condo tower that rented at $3,000 a month after only two days of advertising on Craigslist.

A unit in the Bayshore development, owned by a corporate entity asking $11,000 a month, went almost as fast. Some of the typical renters: a film producer needing a place for four months, consular staff assigned to the city and corporate executives.

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"The market is there for people who want to move here but aren't sure about buying," she said.

Other realtors who specialize in Coal Harbour, as Ms. Wood does, and downtown properties also said they don't see a stampede towards selling.

Ian Watt said he's had no clients giving up their condos to avoid the tax. However, he did hear from one couple with a unit assessed at $4.6-million, which would mean a tax of $46,000 a year at the city's one-per-cent rate, who said, "'We're just not going to do it. Let them catch us.'" Others say they've heard that story occasionally.

Andrew Way, of Condos.ca, also said he's seen little sign of mass sales from current owners, although it is affecting prospective ones.

"I think it's making people hold off buying," said Mr. Way. But for those who own, the gains they are making as real-estate prices continue to climb in Vancouver more than compensate for the tax, he said.

And Michael Geller, an architect and development consultant who has publicly campaigned against the broad reach of the city's vacancy tax, said people are using "creative ways" to avoid it. Among them, having one family member own it and rent to another.

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Some of those people had been hoping for a change of heart from Vancouver planners.

Rainer Borkenhagen, a semi-retired doctor, and others with second homes in the city had formed a coalition, unfairvancouvertax.net, that has been lobbying the city to limit the tax to truly unoccupied homes.

"Our apartments are occupied. They're not empty," said Mr. Borkenhagen. He said , many second homes are heavily used as people come into town to visit children and grandchildren, go to medical appointments, or enjoy a city they plan to retire to eventually. "There are seniors who rely on these places and would find it disruptive to go to hotels instead."

But city planners don't show any sign of amending the vacancy-tax rules for that group.

A report Friday from chief planner Gil Kelley recommends making some exceptions for properties that are going through the development process.

But his report says that, although 30 per cent of the 5,000 calls received by the city about the tax were from owners of second homes who say they shouldn't be included, no exemption will be considered.

"The overarching goal of the (tax) is to substantially increase the number of homes being made available for rent. Creating an exemption could significantly impact the city's ability to achieve this goal."

The report also rejects the idea of having a cap on the tax, which would benefit owners of the most expensive homes.

The 2016 census, in a February release, identified 25,495 homes in the city as unoccupied or occupied by temporary or foreign residents. The city's recent report broke that down further, saying only 14 per cent of those units were occupied temporarily.

Vancouver's rate of unoccupied units has increased from 5.2 per cent of all homes in 2001 to 8.2 per cent in 2016. In absolute numbers, that meant a doubling of vacant units.

Toronto's number of homes defined as unoccupied tripled, to 99,000, in the same period.

Cities like Halifax, Saskatoon, and Edmonton have higher proportions of unoccupied homes, although much fewer in terms of total numbers than Toronto or Vancouver.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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