It is the question at the centre of Saanich council’s debate on a request for an exemption from the provincial speculation tax: does Saanich have an ‘empty home’ problem?
First, the numbers. According to Statistics Canada, 5.6 per cent of Saanich homes (or 2,770 out of 49,422 private dwellings) are not occupied by their usual residents. The category of occupied buildings also includes private dwellings whose usual residents are temporarily absent from their residences on Census Day, May 10, 2016.
While Saanich’s share of empty homes is on par with the share across the Greater Victoria region of 5.7 per cent, figures vary within the region. Oak Bay has a figure of 4.7 per cent, Sidney 5.9 per cent and Victoria has a share of seven per cent. Langford has a total of 4.8 per cent. Notably, both Langford and Sidney have already passed motions requesting exemption.
Looking beyond Greater Victoria, but still on Vancouver Island, the share of empty homes in Nanaimo is 4.2 per cent. Equally notable is the per cent share of empty homes in communities that have already received exemptions. The larger Parksville area has a share of just over six per cent, while the Town of Qualicum Beach has a share of 7.3 per cent. Saltspring Island – like other Gulf Islands exempted from the tax — has a share of 17.5 per cent, with 1,029 empty homes.
But these figures do not definitively tell whether Saanich or for that matter, the Greater Victoria region, has an empty home problem. The answer depends on a reference point. It also does not say how and whether the speculation tax will address it. More data might be needed, as the losing side of last Monday’s narrow 5-4 vote in favour of exemption argued.
Coun. Colin Plant fell into that camp when he argued in favour of a meeting with provincial staff to receive more information.
“I was ready to go off, two guns blazing against this, but I think this [meeting] is a sober step,” he said. “I’m willing to entertain this [exemption], once I have had the information from the ministry, that this may be the worst thing ever for Saanich. But until I have more data, I’m not going to rely on anecdotal experience. At this point, I don’t think we have enough information.”
Those on the winning side of the vote acknowledged the absence of local information, but it is up to the province to make the point in favour of the tax.
Mayor Richard Atwell fell into that camp when he argued that it may take some time to collect and validate local data. “You need to convince us, and I think this is an important piece of the conversation,” he said. “The law itself is already showing some weakness and if the government truly believed in it and thought it through, they would not be considering exemptions for communities. We need to be convinced and until we are convinced, this is our position.”
So what might these empty home figures mean? While Victoria’s regional share of empty homes at 5.7 per cent is less than the share in Qualicum Beach, it nonetheless means that almost 10,000 homes remain empty in a metropolitan region (as opposed to 341 empty homes in a small community). That is almost 10,000 homes that could be rented out for at least some portions of the year, a potential luxury in the light of a tight rental market.
Critics, however, also have a point when they raise questions about implementing the speculation tax.
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.
This means that homeowners can avoid the tax if they rent them out for six months. But Coun. Vicki Sanders argued that past and pending changes have made it more difficult to rent out homes.
Experts have also pointed out that the speculation tax is only part of a larger mix of policies designed to improve housing affordability and its impact on the housing market will be difficult to divorce — at least in the short term — from other factors.