Vacant Unit Tax: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

By Wilson Lo,, Barrhaven East Councillor

At the Council meeting in August, I was part of a group of Councillors who attempted to repeal the Vacant Unit Tax (VUT). Though we were unsuccessful, I remain opposed to the measure.

To preface, I don’t buy into the argument the declarations are unfairly burdensome or difficult to complete. My only property is my own house, and I filled out my declaration in 30 seconds or so. There were anecdotal arguments about seniors falling through the gaps of the process and unfairly punished, but seniors had the highest rates of completed declarations in the city.

The declaration process could not have been any simpler, and I do agree that the inflated numbers from the first year of declarations could be anomalous as residents continue learning about and accepting the initiative.

The appeals process also protects homeowners from wrongful charges, such as if they are clearing out a deceased loved one’s home, on deployment, or renovating between tenants.

Where I don’t agree with the VUT is its efficacy and how the city collects the information.

Barrhaven East is over 90 per cent single family homes, with the remaining homes in condominiums. The types of vacancy targeted by the VUT are exceptionally low in the ward. Even if the VUT targeted these properties, I’m not sure putting a 700,000$+ home on the market qualifies as adding to the affordable housing stock — if the homeowner decided to rent it out, I’m not sure anyone would consider it as affordable, either.

I’m also generally against the reverse onus method of information collection. In principle, the city is presuming everybody is committing the offence of keeping a property vacant unless the homeowner opts out.

Interestingly, the VUT has generated cool administrative data for the city, but the purpose of the VUT is to tax vacant properties. There may be no easier way of collecting that information right now, but until it becomes less intrusive, more refined, and better focused, I can’t support the presumption of guilt unless proven innocent (plus audit).

That also goes without mentioning the staff and administrative requirement of running the VUT programme.

Affordable housing, including deeply affordable and supportive units, absolutely needs better funding to ensure every resident can choose both the roof over their heads and to feed themselves and their families. However, income taxes are supposed to fund that redistribution of income.

It’s rich to place responsibility on another level of government, but there have been no updates to the fiscal framework under which municipalities operate for over one hundred years. I would love for the city to fund and manage housing since we know our own communities best, but the fiscal framework must allow for that to happen (same for other social services).

Hopefully, opportunities to discuss the VUT will come up again in future years of this term of Council. We can’t always tax our way out of issues. We need to address the conditions that created the need for the VUT in the first place.