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Councillor calls on the city to mull vacancy tax after man does own study of empty condos

It’s time for the city to consider whether to impose a vacancy tax on empty residential properties as a way to increase the supply of rental housing, a city councillor says.

Coun. Ana Bailao’s comments come after a designer and software developer did a photographic study of his own on vacant Toronto condo towers that suggest the vacancy rate is much higher than estimated.

Bailao, who represents Ward 9, Davenport and is the city’s housing advocate, said on Tuesday that she has been pushing for Toronto to get moving on the issue of vacant properties.

“It is imperative that we move faster. What is the feasibility? What is the data? What are the numbers?” she said.

Bailao said the point of a vacancy tax is not to raise funds but mainly to encourage people to rent vacant units and to use homes as spaces in which to live as opposed to places for investment.

The city could use any funds generated from the tax to build affordable housing, she added. She noted that the city of Vancouver raised an estimated $38 million in the first year of its Empty Homes Tax that was first imposed in 2016.

“Other cities are doing it. They’re generating cash,” Bailao added.

In July 2017, council directed city staff to inquire about the “possible public policy benefits” of a vacancy tax and to figure how the city would identify vacant units. It could be mandatory for property owners to declare vacant units or homes, it could be voluntary, or identification could come from complaints.

There hasn’t been a response from city staff yet, she said.

We haven’t heard back,” Bailao said. “We need more pressure. I have asked for some movement on this file. I don’t understand what is taking so long.”

The councillor said data needs to be gathered first and the city cannot afford to have thousands of residential units vacant, whether it’s 2,000 or 5,000 vacant units, she added: “We need to do everything we possibly can to bring them back to the market.”

The project looked at light from 15 condos through photos
Jaco Joubert, a Toronto designer, software developer and renter, agrees.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Tuesday, Joubert explained how he photographed 15 downtown condo towers at night over the course of a year to monitor when the lights were on to determine whether or not they were occupied.

“My initial expectation was that maybe one per cent of units would be vacant. That certainly didn’t turn out to be the case,” Joubert said.

“Unfortunately, this data that I collected really should really have been collected by the city. I would think the first step definitely is to at least collect the information on the vacancy rate and also to consider imposing a tax.”

Joubert set up a camera with a 200 mm lens to take photos of condo towers from about a kilometre away. The camera took one photo every five minutes, beginning at sunset and ending at sunrise, for one week.

The process was repeated a few months later in case people living in the units were away on vacation or work trips, or the units were not rented yet.

“Out of my apartment, I have a pretty good view of the entire downtown skyline, from down the Yonge Line and down Liberty Village,” he said.

Then, he turned the photos into black and white heat maps using a custom filter and overlaid them on each other to create one cumulative image that showed anywhere there was light. He examined the floor plans for each building and the photos themselves to detect patterns.

“Even if you have black-out blinds, it’s still very hard to not have any light slip out ever,” he said. 

In total, Joubert took photos of 1,362 units across the 15 buildings. Of these units, he determined that 76 were empty, which means 5.6 per cent were vacant, according to his calculations.

Joubert said if the 5.6 per cent vacancy rate holds true across Toronto, then the city has a significant number of units currently empty.

‘It’s hard in this city to find stable housing’
“Certainly every building is different,” he said. “It’s almost like you can tell which buildings were sold to certain classes of investors and which buildings were sold to people meant to live there,” he said.

He said pricing of rental units is affected by the vacancy rate.

“People will pay a lot of money, as a proportion of their income, to stay within their communities and with their friends and with their jobs. So it can have a disproportionate influence on how much rent is rising,” he said. “It’s hard in this city to find stable housing.”

Joubert said he hopes his study will generate interest in the issue of vacant units. “My intention was to start a conversation and I think that succeeded,” he added.

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