Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, who is the MLA for Saanich South, defends the speculation tax. Saanich council recently voted to request an exemption from the tax.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, who is the MLA for Saanich South, defends the speculation tax. Saanich council recently voted to request an exemption from the tax.

Saanich MLA Popham defends speculation tax

Without direct reference to Saanich’s request for an exemption from the speculation tax, local MLA Lana Popham defended the speculation tax.

“The housing affordability crisis in Saanich South is a top issue here and across the province, and people are frustrated that it has been allowed to spiral out of control, unchecked for 16 years,” she said in a statement to the Saanich News. “Too many people tell me that they are unable to find or afford housing in our community, and that businesses are struggling to find workers as a result. The problem demands immediate, bold action and our government is acting.” She later added through a spokesperson that she supports the decision of the government without directly commenting on council’s decision.

Popham, who is also the minister of agriculture, made this comment after Saanich voted 5-4 to formally request an exemption from the speculation tax.

Mayor Richard Atwell joined Couns. Susan Brice, Karen Harper, Vicki Sanders and Leif Wergeland in support of the exemption. Couns. Judy Brownoff, Fred Haynes, Colin Plant and Dean Murdock opposed it.

While Popham’s public support for the tax represents par for the course, Saanich’s opposition represents a different category. Saanich is neither the first nor likely the last community to ask for an exemption, but its size and status as the largest municipality in Greater Victoria will likely grants its concerns more influence than the concerns of communities like Qualicum Beach.

Coun. Dean Murdock referenced this reality in supporting calls by Coun. Fred Haynes for a meeting with the provincial government prior to submitting an exemption request.

“I’m prepared to wager that the largest municipality in one of Canada’s most expensive real estate markets isn’t going to get an exemption from the speculation tax, if it goes into place,” said Murdock. “But if there is information out there, ‘this is going to have adverse consequences we didn’t anticipate,’ that is a conversation [with the provincial government] well worth having.”

In the end, this appeal did not stop council from submitting a formal request for exemption. This said, council later agreed to ask for a meeting with the provincial government to discuss its reasons for the exemption request. It is not clear if and when such a meeting might take place. The ministry of finance did not respond to questions by deadline.

Saanich’s concerns with the speculation tax also sends a larger political message. Two of the three MLAs representing Saanich sit in cabinet — Popham and education minister Rob Fleming. The third — Green MLA Andrew Weaver — is arguably the most important figure in contemporary B.C. politics behind Premier John Horgan himself by virtue of holding the fate of Horgan’s minority government in his hands.

So where do these figures stand on Saanich’s exemption request?

“I’m proud that our government is taking action on the housing crisis,” said Fleming. “Affordable housing is now out of reach for many families, renters, and seniors in Saanich. We have a responsibility as government to act to make sure that the people who live and work here are able to find and afford a home in the capital region.”

Weaver, for his part, has been critical of the tax and praised James for making various changes.

“In a minority government, we have an opportunity to do things differently by collaborating to improve public policy,” he said in late March, after the provincial government had announced changes. “We worked hard to champion British Columbians’ concerns and bring forth evidence-based solutions to this policy’s shortcomings. We agree with the B.C. NDP that we need to take action to address speculation in our real estate market. However, we have been clear that we needed to see changes to this tax in order to support the forthcoming legislation.”

Weaver, however, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The provincial government first announced the tax as part of its 2018 budget. The tax applies to most of Metro Vancouver, the Capital Regional District (excluding the Gulf Islands and Juan de Fuca Electoral Area), Kelowna-West Kelowna, Nanaimo-Lantzville (excluding Protection Island), Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Mission.

It requires B.C. residents to pay a tax of 0.5 per cent on second or vacation homes valued at $400,000 or above if their owners do not rent them out for at least six months of the year, for periods of at least 30 days. The provincial government exempt homes under $400,000 to ensure the tax that does not capture most cabins.

According to Statistics Canada, Saanich has more than 2,700 so-called empty homes — about 5.6 per cent of the local housing stock.