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Vancouver mulls property tax hike, prepares for future housing projects

The budget includes $17-million for “active transportation corridors,” which will cover some of the work to create an Arbutus Greenway.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver is preparing to ask residents to pay higher property taxes as the city spends tens of millions of dollars on projects aimed at tackling its housing crisis.

A draft 2017 budget envisions a 3.7-per-cent increase to property taxes with the city preparing to create new rental units and social housing, along with other projects, such as parks and new cycling and walking paths.

"There's huge pressure from the community to continue with our investments in housing," said Councillor Geoff Meggs, the chair of the finance committee and a member of the majority Vision Vancouver party on council.

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The city has been spending much of the past year in a debate over how to address a housing market that has become increasingly unaffordable for both owners and renters. Along with building new housing, the city has also approved a new tax on vacant homes.

The draft budget envisions putting $80-million into affordable-housing projects, the largest amount to date that Vancouver has spent in a year.

That will include $30-million for what is labelled "rental affordable housing units," $9-million for a housing site in the East Fraserlands being developed in the city's southeast corner, and another $5-million for land downtown for social housing.

Mr. Meggs said the city needed to increase its allocation for housing in order to take advantage of provincial and federal programs that are unrolling.

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The province announced Wednesday $500-million worth of affordable-housing projects.

Ten of the projects are in Vancouver, accounting for 600 units, but the city has to provide land in order for some of those to go ahead.

The city's higher-than-inflation tax increase appears to be about equal to what Surrey is considering, as it also deals with pressures to combat crime and provide increased services as the population continues to mushroom.

And B.C. cities are spending more freely than Calgary, where the mayor is pushing for a zero-per-cent increase as that city has staggered under the economic difficulties brought on by the plunge in global oil prices.

But the Vancouver council's minority party is not impressed by the burst of spending, no matter the cause.

Non-Partisan Association Councillor George Affleck said that spending at Vancouver city hall has soared in the past decade, rising 30 per cent when the population increase has been only a third of that.

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"And this is the biggest increase since I've been elected," he said.

Mr. Affleck questioned some items in the budget that seemed to be unnecessary. The city plans to spend $500,000 on the Vancouver Economic Commission, in part so that it can promote the film industry. "That's half a million for an industry that's thriving."

He's also dubious about the $2-million budgeted to start the process of collecting an empty-homes tax in 2018.

The budget includes $17-million for "active transportation corridors," which will cover some of the work to create an Arbutus Greenway. It also includes $3.5-million for the removal of the viaducts.

The city heard from about 5,000 residents and business owners during October consultations on the budget through online surveys, commissioned polls, public meetings and stakeholder meetings.

About 70 per cent of residents and 50 per cent of business owners said they were happy with city services, in line from previous surveys.

But the concerns of residents have changed dramatically in recent years. In 2012, social issues and transportation were the two top issues for Vancouverites.

By 2015, the cost of living and transportation were the top two, but housing had risen to third place.

This year, housing was the top worry for residents, with cost of living second; businesses had cost of living at the top and housing next.

Sharon Townsend, the executive director of the South Granville business association, said another substantial tax increase will be hard on businesses. "It's not good out there, retail is not good."

There is another budget forum Nov. 30 at the Roundhouse community centre downtown. Then the budget will be debated and voted upon on Dec. 7.

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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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