When the B.C. NDP government quietly announced its registration system for the new “speculation and vacancy tax” last week, it took a minute for me to realize that every homeowner in affected urban areas is required to register, every year.
If they don’t, they will be billed on their property taxes, not at the lower rate for Canadians, but at the full two per cent of 2018 assessed value. That’s the rate reserved for foreign buyers and “satellite families,” those Asian high rollers who are supposed to be driving our housing prices through the roof with their dirty money.
I called it “negative-option billing,” a term that jogged memories. Readers started asking me, isn’t that illegal?
It is indeed, but only for businesses. A federal law was passed in 1999 after an outcry over a cable company’s move to charge customers for a new service unless they contacted the company to decline it.
In this case, 1.6 million residential property owners in designated B.C. urban areas are to receive a letter, starting this week, instructing them to fill out a form declaring they are not real estate speculators. If you have a house or suite that isn’t occupied by a relative or rented out at least six months of the year, you get dinged, annually.
Premier John Horgan shrugged off the complicated form and negative-option billing, comparing it to the homeowner grant introduced by W.A.C. Bennett in 1957.
Horgan made a couple of obviously false statements. The B.C. Liberals didn’t raise concerns in the legislature, he said. Okay, so the tax revolt led by mayors of Kelowna and Horgan’s home town of Langford, and the fall legislature session with objections from the B.C. Greens as well as the B.C. Liberals, never happened?
How about Finance Minister Carole James’ two humiliating retreats on this tax, the first on its overreach into rural vacation properties, and the second on applying the foreigner rate to Albertans and Ontarians? Did those un-happen too?
“The biggest challenge for B.C. Liberals is we’re trying to do something about speculation in the housing market, and they did nothing,” Horgan said.
It was Aug. 1, 2016 when the former government revealed its foreign buyer tax, applying only to non-Canadian purchasers in Metro Vancouver’s then-soaring real estate market. At 15 per cent of value, it actually worked. Foreign purchases went from 10 per cent of the Metro market to less than two per cent in two months.
The foreign buyer tax is still in effect, and the statistics B.C. began to collect showed how few foreign-buyers there were. In Greater Victoria, it was about 3.5 per cent.
Now the NDP version extends beyond Metro Vancouver to Victoria, Kelowna, West Kelowna, Nanaimo, Lantzville, Chilliwack, Abbotsford and Mission.
A fact-challenged government ad started running last week too. The speculation tax “makes sure everyone who uses services like hospitals, schools and transit pays their fair share,” the ad states. So, how many empty apartments go to hospital and school, or ride transit?
James merely stretches the truth. After caving in to B.C. Green Party leader’s final demand last fall to charge all Canadian owners the same rate, James lowered her estimate of what the tax will bring in to about $185 million a year.
But when asked how many vacant homes are expected to shift into the rental market to avoid the tax, Horgan, James and finance officials admit they don’t know.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org