Business & Economy
June 15, 2016

Too Little Too Late? Gregor’s Lax Housing Tax

After much dithering at the Provincial level this  Globe and Mail Article  states that Gregor Robertson, Mayor of Vancouver is proposing a tax on property owners that don’t live in their houses. The intent is to ensure that such properties are rented, and provide valuable housing stock to those that need it.

The challenge is that the Provincial government has already rejected previous attempts to tax vacant Vancouver houses.

While suspecting that 10,000 houses are vacant in Vancouver, a figure released by city staff in March, the Mayor proposes that the tax be high enough to encourage the property to be rented locally. The mayor said  that the city wants access to an estimated 10,000 empty houses in Vancouver, a figure based on data that city staff released in March. But he didn’t say how high he thinks the tax would have to be to persuade those owners to rent out their houses.

There are now evidence-based studies suggesting that foreign buyers have completely distorted the local market making it unaffordable to citizens of Vancouver. Of course there are other protestations that such statements are akin to racism. The upshot is that people who work in Vancouver cannot  afford to live here. The single family home dream is dead.

The intent is to tax all homeowners who do not live in their home, no matter their reasons or their homelands.

“We would love to have thousands of those homes in the rental market right now when there’s almost no vacancy and a real crunch on affordable housing,” the mayor said,  “We’d like to see more supply created from the empty homes that are just sitting there in the city.”

Mayor Robertson is expecting a report in short order before Council’s summer break.You may remember that the Mayor had asked the Premier for jurisdiction for a luxury housing tax a year ago, and some remedies to penalize  owners who did not live in their properties. These suggestions were rejected by the Province. It was suggested that the city could find “solutions in better land-use planning”.

Creating more density does not address the underlying problem of  a lot of vacant houses in Vancouver neighbourhoods. There were two of these vacant foreign-owned houses on my street of nine  houses. It would be great to see them occupied by families.

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Andy Yan has a thoughtful and well researched approach to the subjects he studies. He is fearless in approaching the affordability debate, and is affiliated with Bing Thom Architects and UBC. He is also the acting director of SFU’s City Program .

Andy is on the Vancouver Magazine’s Power 50 list, and recently was interviewed  by Vancouver Magazine‘s  Trevor Melanson. Andy found out that the median income for degree-holders in Vancouver was $9,000 less than in the ten biggest cities in Canada.

B.C. university graduates also carry the most student debt and have the highest interest rates on that debt.  A debt they have to pay, as well as deal with finding affordable housing. As Andy says:

It’s really hard to create a garden of new economic activity under an inch of concrete as represented by student debt. We may very well attract some of the smartest and brightest around in this country, but to saddle them with at times very significant debt I think limits their potential—and if anything is a motivation to get out of a region that may not pay as well as other regions. Take a tech worker that has trained at a local university. It’s only rational for him to move to other places like San Francisco or Seattle. There’s a very specific logic to that. It’s not about talent attraction but retaining talent, which is probably one of the biggest challenges for Vancouver.

It’s also the reality that when you’re in your 20s or 30s, you’re in the most mobile period of your career. And in an economy that’s increasingly dependent on young talent, the ability to capture and retain that talent—it’s a major economic challenge. And housing costs don’t particularly help the situation. There are going to be four consequences of this housing market: one is overcrowding, two is over-indebtedness, three is sprawl, and four is ultimately migration out of the region.”

Andy sees three strategies for economic development as hunting, fishing and farming. New talent is hunted for jobs, a pool of amenities and  great lifestyles anchor why people want to come to Vancouver, and lastly, local firms are nurtured to grow and attract more opportunities.

As Andy states “We actually have all these small head offices in Metro Vancouver, and really our challenge is to help nurture them to have the capacity to grow, as opposed to only attracting new firms in the region”.

Vancouver needs a strong strategy to attract, maintain, and allow young workers and families to thrive. Andy Yan has pointed out what needs to be done.

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In March I updated Price Taggers  on the latest news from the “all things mega” mall development at Tsawwassen Mills, located on arable farming land and the flood plain east of the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal.  As you can see in the photo above, this thing is huge.

The Delta Optimist has just published this article  when the local paper had  a tour of the 1.2 million square foot mall, which will feature 200 stores and 16 anchor tenants. This mall is situated on land controlled by the Tsawwassen First Nation, and is located at the corner of Highway 17 and 52nd Street. The developer is Ivanhoe Cambridge of Oakridge Mall fame, and the intent is to have a “fashion-oriented” centre with a 1,100 seat food court area.

Over 2,000 construction jobs created the mall  and 4,500 permanent jobs are anticipated upon mall completion. I spoke to one electrician who said the mall has supplied him with three years of work. Coast Salish art work by many of the  Tsawwassen First Nations band members is also being installed.

The mall is based upon CrossIron Mills Mall in Calgary as well as Toronto’s  Vaughn Mills. In both of these cases there is not very good transit and the malls are close to large populations. The difference here is that the Metro Vancouver population may just use the internet for their shopping, or drive another twenty minutes to the border to shop in the United States. Will people shop on their way to the ferry? Do you think this mall will be successful?

With a scheduled opening for October 5 planned, I have been watching the Walmart site which is still-well, a pile of sand.  Let’s see what four months will bring.

 

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If you own a house in Metro Vancouver, your property tax notice may have been a surprise. It is no secret that single-family housing in Vancouver and the Metro area is getting more expensive. And there are many people who have a suite in their basement, not for any extra cash, but as the way to pay for the property taxes, which are now approaching the north side of $10,000 a year in many places.  There is tax relief for houses that are valued at under 1.2 million dollars, but the regional benchmark price is now 1.4 million as of May 2016. Most housing is worth more than 1.2 million dollars now.

Once you hit 55 years of age, you can defer your property taxes and pay a low rate of interest. The real problem is for folks who live in houses that are suddenly worth more than 1.2 million dollars, and are, well, young.

Stephen Quinn in the Globe and Mail describes this dilemma this tongue in cheek way:

Yes the owners of single-family houses…who disproportionately suck up municipal services, who encourage sprawl and who are essentially subsidized by condo dwellers and other people who live in more ecologically responsible homes, are under attack”.

Mayor Darrell Mussatto of the City of North Vancouver has asked the Province to separate single-family houses from condominiums and multiple-unit dwellings so owners of single-family homes could get a tax break. However, it is single-family residences that have received the large equity lift, not condominiums and multiple-unit dwellings. Since single-family homes consume more services such as roads, sidewalks and infrastructure, they should be paying more. Real estate guru and developer Michael Geller agrees.

Stephen Quinn does make one very good point though-if people are paying property tax for a single-family dwelling assessed at a certain value, they should be selling the house at that value. That would be one way to maintain affordability in an upward market.

 

 

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The Globe and Mail has weighed in  with an article titled “Fatal Crossings” analyzing five years of data to ascertain why and how 163 pedestrians have died in the City of Toronto in the last five years. By the author Victor Biro’s calculations, that means that in Toronto on average  one pedestrian is hit on the street by a vehicle every four hours. It also means that a pedestrian on average  dies from a vehicular crash every ten days.

Just as Price Tags reported in the article entitled The Big Toll Paid by Vulnerable Road Users published on May 31st, the way people  are killed on the roads is a major public health issue. That is why the Chief Medical Officer of British Columbia, Dr. Perry Kendall has written a report Where the Rubber Meets The Road: Reducing the Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes on Health and Well-being in British Columbia, addressing the deaths of 280 people a year and the maiming of 79,000 others on roads in this Province.

As Dr. Kendall states, this is a health emergency. His report and his advice, which included lowering speed limits were dismissed by authorities like the Canadian Automobile Association, which were interviewed  for their reaction. However evidence clearly proves that the survivability for a pedestrian or cyclist hit at 30 kilometers per hour is 80 per cent, while the survivability for a pedestrian or cyclist hit at 50 kilometers per hour is 10 per cent.  Somehow the intransigence of the car lobby is more important than that of the vulnerable road user who is also sustainably participating in active transportation.

The Kendall report cites the human factors contributing to fatal crashes as speed, distraction and impairment.  Toronto, which is preparing a road-safety plan realizes “that protecting pedestrians will require a fundamental shift in mindset, one that challenges the car culture and the unspoken attitude that traffic fatalities are an unavoidable reality of urban living”.

And there you have it. The Globe and Mail noted that a significant proportion of pedestrians killed were over 65. They were hit by a larger vehicle. They were typically crossing an arterial road. And not surprisingly in the suburbs and at a location without a traffic signal or cross walk. At either 30 kilometers an hour or 50 kilometers an hour, seniors are three to four times more likely to die than a younger person.

Reporter Victor Biro admonishes Toronto for “focusing its efforts at spots that have proved dangerous, a reactive approach that effectively means that pedestrians have to die or be seriously injured before drivers will be made to slow down”.  The warrant system  used in the City of Vancouver is similar. Provincial funding  for intersections is made available based upon the accident and mortality rates garnered  from the provincial Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC) statistics.  As in the case where a family of four were hit by a vehicle in an intersection in Surrey earlier this year, an intersection is not deemed suitable for  a safety upgrade until the human toll has been paid.

With an aging population, many of whom  will be walking instead of driving, moving more slowly and with impaired hearing and sight, road safety is paramount. In Toronto 24 per cent of the population will be senior by 2041. There is an argument that enhancing walkability means universal accessibility for all, and enhances active transportation. In the same manner as creating separated bike lanes for those eight to eighty years, we should be enhancing safe, comfortable walking facilities for those six to 106. Their lives depend upon that.

 

 

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Before Vancouver’s  Georgia Viaduct was implemented, there was an active community that existed between Union and Prior Streets in Vancouver. This excellent 16 minute film Secret Vancouver: Return to Hogan’s Alley features stories of Hogan’s Alley, the residents, the stories and the music of a very connected, talented neighbourhood. Narrated by native son and historian John Atkin, the erasing of this community was a direct result of the superiority of motordom.

Just like other North American cities, the downtown areas home to Asian and African Canadian populations were targeted as clearing blight for the technological advantage of the car in the 1950’s.  Finding out the community that was is the focus of Chris and Melissa Bruntlett’s article  Women in Urbanism: Stephanie Allen on correcting past errors. Stephanie Allen has researched what happened to the small community of Hogan’s Alley as part of her Master’s thesis. In her current work she identifies the importance of public engagement in the redevelopment of this area when the viaducts are removed, and believes that developers and government should give priority to people who “cannot or will not have the same access to housing as other more affluent citizens”.   Ms. Allen references the City of Portland’s Right to Return Program which provides incentives for displaced people to return to the areas where they originally formed communities.

Ms. Allen is now looking at creating models of successful mixed-income developments, allowing people with diverse backgrounds to form new communities. She identifies the importance of day-to-day management and equal involvement of market and non-market residents from the time of move-in to ensure a shared sense of responsibility and ownership. It is interesting work, and the rediscovery of the  history of Hogan’s Alley illustrates the richness of what was lost-and what could be recreated.

 

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BBC News reports that the fundamental public art necessary to a new civic campaign to pick up after your dog has gone missing from Torrelodones, a city just outside of Madrid.

Someone has taken the…fiberglassed dog pile. As BBC reports “staff was shocked and perplexed by the theft, and a replacement excrement was already on order because we know the campaign has been a great success”.

The Atlas Obscura also features this story, noting that until a replacement inflatable excrement is found, selfies will have to be taken with another object.

 

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After the excitement generated by the driverless car’s  flypaper technology  to deal with hitting pesky pedestrians, patented by Google, the Friday File reports a patent filing showing that the Zee.Aero company is working on an all-electric plane that can take off and land vertically-a flying car. This is another of Larry Page’s initiatives. Mr. Page is the co-founder of Google.

In this article from Bloomberg Businessweek  a new way of independent air travel free of busy  streets full of vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians is being visioned. There have also been sightings from other pilots of a strange-looking airplane taking off from a nearby Hollister airport. Mr. Page’s two companies, Kitty Hawk and Zee.Aero are cloaked in secrecy.  However it appears that advancing technology, materials, and navigation systems means that this could be a reality.

Paul Moller a retired professor from University of California at Davis developed the M200X Skycar that flew at 50 feet above the ground. Speaking at the Palo Alto Research Centre in 2000, Moller spoke to a young Larry Page that was very interested in the technology. There has since been forays into this new technology over time, with thoughts of of parking garages, roofs and highway verges seen as access points for aerocars.

The Bloomberg article is compelling reading on the history of the inventors and  development of the aerocar, with an inkling of how far this technology has come. While there are loads of liability, navigational, and general legislation that would need to be enacted,  the technology may indeed be possible. Will this be the next disruptive technology?

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Every year as part of the Share The Road Challenge, car drivers and transit users compete in a race to the downtown in Vancouver as part of  the HUB Cycling Annual “Share the Road Challenge”.  Thirteen teams of bike, car and transit users started out at various locations in Vancouver and North Vancouver. Their mission? Arrive at the corner of Granville and Georgia Streets faster than their team mates.

For the first time in eight years of running this challenge, the bicyclists on each team were the fastest, arriving at the  downtown finish line way ahead of the vehicular and transit modes.

As reported in the the Daily Hive, the development of dedicated bike lanes and bike boxes at intersections is paying off handsomely in faster bicycle commute times. Everything has come full circle-cycling is the way to go, and as this race proves, is the quickest way  to travel to the  downtown.

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In Australia a 200 kilometer “silo art trail” follows murals painted in farming country in Victoria state. This area has been heavily impacted by drought for the past two years. The work started in the farming community of Brim with a street artist from Brisbane, Guido van Helten  painting a giant mural on an abandoned grain silo.  The artist incorporated local people and their stories in the murals. Now other street artists are being commissioned to paint murals on  silos in other towns. The intent is to create a tourist opportunity for viewing this large scale art, and providing  a much needed influx of cash into these towns.

 

A previous post on Price Tags describes the creation and opening of the “Giants” on Granville Island, painted on the Ocean Cement silos for the Vancouver  Biennale.

Daphne Bramham wrote  about the fate of Vancouver’s “Giants”  in the Vancouver Sun  last month, noting that they desperately need some restorative paint.The Giants are painted by Brazilian twins Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo (also known as Os Gemeos). The link above also has a time lapse video showing how the two brothers painted the silos.

As part of the Vancouver Biennale, the work is supposedly temporary unless there is an outpouring of public support and funding for the art to stay. They are a fabulous attraction on Granville Island, and iconic in their simplicity and artistic execution. I really hope they are able to stay.

 

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