Susan Davis: City of Vancouver's property tax shift is too little, too late if it wants to embrace a sustainable future

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      By Susan Davis

      As a small business owner, I was grateful that city council have taken action and voted to transfer part of the tax burden carried by entrepreneurs to residential taxes. However, this may be “too little too late”, as it will unfold over three years.

      Many truly small businesses do not have three years to wait for relief to come. And the livability of communities across our city are being impacted.

      The community of Kensington is a beautiful reflection of Vancouver life. Tree-lined streets and a vibrant business district made up of small family run businesses are a reminder of the way citizens of our city are accustomed to living. Restaurants representing a wide range of international cuisine, specialty food shops, and fresh produce stands provide all the essentials within walking distance for people who live here.

      It's a lifestyle that residents have come to appreciate and rely on. Walking, not driving, to buy locally grown and manufactured products and supporting local small businesses. 

      That life style and vibrancy are being threatened.

      People generally view business owners as immune to financial hardship but the increasing pressure of property tax increases and rising fuel costs mean “true” small businesses run by families or employing two to 20 people are feeling the pressure. Competition with big-box stores and their mass purchasing power has placed these small businesses in a difficult position.

      They must charge more to the consumer to cover the increasing costs or charge less to compete and face financial strain. 

      I am Susan Davis. People may know me from my social justice work in the city. Just over seven years ago, my partner Frank and I bought an old Italian butcher shop, Calabria Meat Market, on Victoria Drive in the hopes of creating a future in which we could support ourselves while serving the community and keeping the art of the traditional butcher alive.

      It was a dream come true, almost like winning the lottery. The shop had all the equipment we needed and the rent was reasonable. We were excited to be a part of the journey toward better access to local food in Vancouver.

      We worked hard to source everything from the Lower Mainland. Fresh chicken, pasture-raised Berkshire pork, fresh B.C. lamb, cheese, and even fresh beef shoulder from Pitt Meadows for pot roasts, stews, and burgers.

      We make our own sausages and all of our own charcuterie. We custom cut everything while the customers wait. Sounds good right? A recipe for success...

      All small businesses face challenges in their beginnings and we were prepared for that. The first few years were tough but with the support of our families and an amazingly understanding landlady, we managed to survive. But as the years have passed and the costs of doing business have increased, we are feeling the pressure more and more as a result of the burdens placed on small businesses like ours by decisions made at the government level.

      Assumptions about who small business owners are and policies based on the idea that a “small business” is one that employs 100 people have had dramatic impacts on those truly small businesses like ours, which are run as a family endeavour. The tax we pay every year represents the entirety of our wages and profit. If it wasn't for the tax, we would have actually made money. Instead Frank and I work 16 hours each a day, seven days a week, and continue to struggle to break even. It is a labour of love, to be sure.

      The price of fuel is also taking its toll as costs are transferred to us via the suppliers and, in turn, we have to raise our prices. In a city where the cost of renting a home has gone through the roof, consumers are left so stretched financially that all good intentions of supporting small growers and businesses fall by the wayside. In struggles to pay rent and still afford to eat, people are forced to forego ethics and principles in favour of cheaper prices found in large corporate big box venues. 

      We are not alone in this. More and more small “mom and pop” stores like ours are facing difficult decisions, with many closing even after decades serving their communities. The communities we serve are also facing challenges as not everyone can travel to big box grocery stores and rely on local businesses for food.

      Seniors, low-income people, and those who do not have cars are all impacted when food becomes inaccessible and neighbourhood staples close their doors.

      Shopping local and supporting small businesses who offer fresh locally grown ingredients are critical in the fight against climate change, for the health of citizens and for the sustainability of food security in B.C. As produce and meat are transported over long distances to supply large-scale grocery stores, they not only lose nutritional value but also contribute to fossil fuel emissions.

      As a city that hopes to become the “World's Greenest City” by 2020, I am unclear how these issues can be ignored.

      Given that the largest number of “green jobs” in the city are in retail and wholesale (13 percent green jobs) and that “local food” and “sustainability/security” of that food are recognized as one of the most important key strategies to meet the 2020 goals, why has the city not done more to protect small businesses to ensure this inventory of already “green” jobs remain in place?

      Instead, we are seen as too small to make an impact overall, a "reasonable" casualty in the race to meet the demands of rich property developers.

      Our shop is “green” and generates very little waste. Organic waste is all recycled, as are plastics and paper. We butcher whole animals and use every part in the traditional way.

      This not only reduces waste but also respects the animal and all the energy and effort it took to grow. We supply only hormone-, antibiotic- and cruelty-free meat.  We changed our lights to conserve energy, and monitor our refrigeration closely to ensure the smallest carbon footprint possible. We are doing everything right. 

      As a truly small business owner, I rarely feel represented in conversations about these issues. The city needs to recognize the contributions of small businesses toward the goals of creating a green, livable city and implement a program to support the continued existence of these already green businesses and access to local food products.

       A “property tax subsidy” or “rebate” granted to truly small retailers, growers, and producers would go a long way to address the challenges facing small businesses and communities like ours. It could be the relief that means the difference between success and failure, livable communities or suburban wasteland. It could preserve the green lifestyle communities have become accustomed to.... 

      After all, what good is a “greenest city” if people cannot live there and all the vibrancy of small neighbourhoods is lost? What good is talking about food security and fighting climate change if nothing is done to address it? 

      If the city wants to set a standard for “green” on the global stage, it should start by recognizing and supporting the diversity and ingenuity of small-scale entrepreneurs who are at the heart of the movement toward a green and sustainable future.

      Susan Davis is a Vancouver social-justice advocate and co-owner of Calabria Meat Market on Victoria Drive.

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