Demographic expert David Baxter raises thorny questions about what constitutes an empty home

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      The B.C. legislature will hold a summer sitting, beginning on Monday (July 25), to give the City of Vancouver another tool to address the housing crisis.

      Finance Minister Mike de Jong has already indicated that legislation will be introduced allowing the city to tax empty homes.

      Vancouver council will be able to define an "empty home" and determine the level of taxation.

      In 2014, there were 10,800 nonoccupied homes in Vancouver, according to Ecotagious, which analyzes smart-meter data.

      This amounts to 4.9 percent of all homes in the city. Only 1.2 percent of single-family homes were vacant, compared to 7.2 percent of apartments.

      In a recent paper, Daedalus Analytics Inc. demographic expert David Baxter raised concerns about what might define an empty home and whether this new power to tax could end up costing a fair amount of money in enforcement expenses.

      He began by pointing out that many people are away from their home for certain periods of time.

      "For example, 860 people who lived in Metro Vancouver in 2011 worked in Fort McMurray, commuting sometimes on a weekly basis, or two-weeks-on two-weeks-off, or 10-days-on 4-days-off, or, in some cases, being up North for four months at a time," Baxter wrote.

      He cited other examples where the situation is more grey than black or white, such as a guy working in Iraq as a contractor on a month-on month-off basis. Baxter also mentioned a fellow he sat beside on a plane who works for two-month periods in the Sakhalin oil patch.

      "For these people, while their home in Metro Vancouver was their principal residence, it was neither their full time residence nor their only residence," he wrote.

      Then there are the so-called snowbirds, who spend spring and summer in B.C. but spend the winter in warmer climates. Others go to a second residence in Whistler or on the Gulf Islands. Then, of course, there are politicians who have a second residence in a capital city.

      "As further examples, missionaries, aid workers, people on foreign assignment, musicians, professional athletes, and people on term employment may all be in a situation where a residence here is not occupied full time, and perhaps not occupied much of the time," Baxter wrote.

      If a vacant-home tax is imposed, Baxter noted that it will impose costs on the city. That's because determining if a home is indeed vacant could involve sending an inspector to visit properties every month.

      "But the biggest cost, at least early on, would be in dealing with enforcement and appeals, as there is always a reason, or at least an excuse, for seeking an exemption," he stated. "If you have ever seen someone arguing with a ticketing parking meter by-law officer, you can anticipate the response from people who suddenly find themselves pronounced guilty of occupancy violations."

      In the paper, Baxter quoted B.C. Stats' estimate that the population of Metro Vancouver increased by 5.9 percent between 2011 and 2015. Over the same period, Baxter added, there was a 7.1 percent increase in the housing stock.

      "Without putting too fine a point on it, as a range of other factors affect the housing market, one can conclude that for the most recent period for which data are available, the supply of housing in this region has increased faster than the population has," he wrote.

      Baxter ended his paper by declaring that if people are concerned about empty homes, "there is no need whatsoever to discuss the nationality of the owner, as it is unoccupied regardless of who owns it."