Wednesday, August 29, 2018

More Harassment by City of Vancouver Vacant Home Office auditors. It's time for fair-minded civic officials to intervene!

Hello Mr Geller,

I read with interest your opinion piece regarding the Empty Home Tax.  We too have been selected in an audit to support our claim that our home is not sitting empty.  

We built and moved into our house March 2017 and live here full time.  We share our home with our two teenage daughters, 2 cats, 2 bunnies and multiple foster kittens for a Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue association.  I have supplied the necessary documentation as requested yet the City still wants me to submit the ICBC form you reference in your writing.  I tried to access the form on line yet the site does not recognize my BCDL number or password and has locked me out of the site.  I explained this to the agent from the City and suggested that if I needed to fill out a form, they should supply the form instead of asking residents to go to a third party i.e. ICBC.  What are those who do not drive do to fulfill the City’s wishes?  I was also notified on August 24th that I had exactly one week to submit required documentation or face fines.  What will happen to the many that are enjoying a Summer vacation and will be unaware of this demand before the said deadline?  

I have sent the following original documents to the City by Registered Mail (at their insistence) - ICBC vehicle insurance and registration, certificate of homeowners insurance, and our Fortis Gas bills for April - December 2017.  They already have a copy of my valid Drivers License that shows my address.  So now I wait to see if they will leave me alone.  

More important than my irritation is the fact that none of the supporting documents they require prove I am actually living in my house.  A quick visit by a City agent would quickly determine whether a house was actually lived in or not.

Sigh …

Opinion Vancouver residents feeling harassed by city over Empty Home Tax August 28, 2018

As readers of this column are aware, I am not a fan of Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax, a.k.a. the Vacancy Tax.
     (As you will read, I'm not a fan of the Speculation Tax either)
     Although the tax was intended to address Vancouver’s housing crisis, every Vancouver homeowner is now required to submit an annual property status declaration to determine if their property is subject to the tax.
      Mayor Robertson, who once naively promised to end homelessness, promised this tax could put up to 25,000 properties back on the rental market.
      While I am not blind to what many consider the injustice of homes being kept empty while others have nowhere to live, I opposed this tax for many reasons. For one thing, it suddenly morphed from a vacant home tax into an “under-utilized” home tax impacting many B.C. homeowners who had legitimate reasons for owning a second home in Vancouver.
      When I asked city staff why the tax should apply to these people, I was told these owners could rent out their homes when they were not living in them. A stupid and preposterous response.
In one case, we discovered the tax even applied to the owner of a vacant lot in Kerrisdale that had never been built on.
      I also questioned how the program would be administered, noting the difficulties other international jurisdictions had encountered when trying to implement similar taxes. We are now getting some answers.
      While for most of us Aug. 31 marks the end of summer, for some Vancouver homeowners it is a critical deadline.
      It is the date by which they must submit additional information to the city’s Vacancy Tax office auditors to avoid paying the tax.
      I learned about this from two Vancouver property owners, Cathy and Bill.
Cathy has lived in her house since 2004 where she raised her family. She is an active member of the Kerrisdale Community Centre and prior to the Feb. 2, 2018 deadline signed “yes, I live here” on the city’s declaration form.
      She was subsequently asked to provide additional information. She suspects this may have been because the two homes beside her were empty.
       On April 25, she went in person to City Hall (since privacy considerations prevent her from emailing information) and presented her B.C. driver’s licence and ICBC insurance to prove her residency.  However, this was not adequate for the auditors in the Vacancy Tax office. They wrote back requesting her ICBC residential address history for 2016/2017, along with a homeowner’s insurance policy, or correspondence from a government authority regarding receipt of benefits, or a CRA Notice of Assessment, etc.
      Cathy is compiling (and photocopying) all the necessary documents and will comply with the request. But she wrote to me because she’s feeling unduly harassed by the city.
      Bill is also upset with the city. He claimed an exclusion from the tax since his downtown apartment, which is a second home, was being renovated. The city is now disputing whether his $100,000 renovation fits the definition of a “major renovation.” I do not know all the details of his situation. What I do know is his lawyer is now involved, and the matter may end up in the courts.
      These are just two stories sent to me. But I suspect there are many others feeling harassed by vacancy office auditors.(Editor note: see below.)
      The so-called Empty Homes Tax was intended to bring tens of thousands of additional rental units onto the market. But it has failed. It will no doubt generate revenues for the city; hopefully enough to cover the ever-increasing administrative costs.
     But at what other costs? Longstanding Vancouver residents are feeling harassed and legal disputes are brewing.
     To add insult to injury, the province has decided to bring in its so-called Speculation Tax. While many consider it a wealth tax, it too is a vacant or “under-utilized” dwelling tax. To date, we have received little information on how it will be implemented and administered.
     But if Vancouver’s Empty Home Tax is any indication, the B.C. government should reconsider this ill-conceived program, if only on administrative grounds. Outside of Vancouver, it will not have much help analyzing the piles of photocopied documents to be delivered to its offices.
     What a mess.

POSTSCRIPT: Since writing this column, as expected, I have been inundated with emails and tweets from people wanting to share their stories. (I have also received messages telling me to stop whining. One writer even said he was embarrassed for his SFU Alma Mater as a result of my column. He urged me to get out of my ivory tower and do something productive!)  Here are a couple of things I have heard. Feel free to share others.
Michael, Just wanted to say thanks for the article.

I had a similar experience dealing with CoV and was wondering if it was just me having a particularly horrifically bad bureaucratic experience. Your article definitely provided some comfort.

Between the obvious privacy issues -- needlessly invasive initial document request, inability to email requested followup documents, inability to use the upload function on their portal, using a non-CoV telephone line/non-identification of CoV staff, only accepting followup documents in person or by registered mail and of course lost documents. It was quite comedic at times and illustrative of how poorly thought out and laughable the execution was.

All of this for a condo that has been rented out for years and has always been managed by a large well-known property management firm in Vancouver. With the documents originally supplied, one would think it should have been a pretty straightforward file to adjudicate.

From a lawyer who is very knowledgable about this matter:
Critics of this article by seem to be unaware that the audit program has design flaws that generally make it more unfair than your average CRA audit. Complainants should be listened to, not dismissed as privileged whiners.For one thing, you can’t actually speak with your auditor (you aren’t even given their name). Most other audits involve the possibility of a back-and-forth, which is often critical in getting to the right outcome.

 For a more detailed discussion on the flaws, see here:

Opinion: Spain in the membrane: What Vancouver can learn from the Spaniards Vancouver Courier August 13, 2018

  I often enjoy checking to see what I was doing on a particular date in years gone by.
     Eight years ago today, I had just completed a trip to Spain that included a house exchange in Begur, a coastal medieval village about an hour and a half from Barcelona. Upon returning home, I prepared a list of ideas, big and small, that might improve Vancouver. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I noticed.  
Parking by the minute
     Many Spanish parking garages charge you by the minute, not the hour or half hour. While perhaps not as profitable for the operator, it is much fairer. Vancouver parking meters charge by the minute. Perhaps Impark, EasyPark and other parking lot operators should be encouraged to do so, too.
Cigarette butt holders
     For years, I have been upset by Vancouver streets littered with cigarette butts. In Spain, I came across plastic devices that fold into a cone and can be inserted in the beach, or just about anywhere, to collect cigarette butts. Some incorporate advertising. Surely, we can adapt this for Vancouver.
Painted traffic boxes
     To avoid blocking traffic, major intersections often have painted boxes that must NEVER be entered by motorists unless the driver is certain he can get out before the light changes. Given the congestion caused by cars often blocking Vancouver intersections, we should start doing this here.
Decorative parking garage doors
     Instead of industrial-looking, open metal grill doors, many multi-family developments incorporate decorative garage door designs. This is something most local architects don’t even think about. However, since garage doors are often quite prominent along a street or lane, it would be a good way to beautify Vancouver.
Attractive garbage containers
     In Spain, I rarely saw ugly graffiti-covered metal dumpsters like those found along Vancouver streets and lanes. Instead, there are colour coded garbage containers (with provision for recycling) with foot operated covers. Yes, they prevent dumpster diving, but perhaps that’s a good thing too. For those concerned that this would eliminate revenue opportunities for the homeless, I say let's find them other work opportunities.
Raised bicycle lane markers
     While many bicycle lanes are completely separated, in some situations a small raised marker is set into the pavement to help discourage cars from intruding into bicycle lanes, and cyclists from intruding into the car lanes. Now why don’t we do this?
Adding floors to existing buildings
     Rather than demolish older buildings, it is much more common to add floors to existing buildings. This is an idea I came across in many Asian cities as well. While there are a few instances of adding floors to older buildings in Vancouver, this is an idea worthy of further application. One possibility: using lightweight pre-fabricated modular units hoisted into place.
Pedestrian streets
     While we talk about creating more pedestrian streets in Vancouver, throughout Spain they are everywhere, in cities and small towns. For many reasons, we should start doing this in Vancouver and surrounding municipalities. It is not just a “big city” idea.
More public art and decorative fountains
     There is a much stronger tradition of public art throughout Spain, when compared to Vancouver. Yes, we are trying, but there is so much more we could be doing. One idea, adding public art in the centre of much-needed traffic roundabouts.
Celebrating architecture
     The architecture of Barcelona is one of its key attractions. But when people think of Vancouver, they think of nature — the mountains, the ocean, Stanley Park and, yes, Granville Island. But we too have interesting architecture that should be actively promoted and celebrated.
     To be fair, there is much that Spanish cities could learn from Vancouver, especially when it comes to managing graffiti.
     Those of you who have been to Spain may have other suggestions to add to my list. I look forward to hearing them.

Twitter @michaelgeller

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Canadian Seniors Golf Association

The vernerable Scarboro Golf Clubhouse completed around 1912
     A few years ago, after a round of golf at Point Grey Golf Club, a former banker who knew I liked to golf and travel asked if I was interested in joining the Canadian Seniors Golf Association. It offered the opportunity to play in tournaments across Canada and around the world. The membership criteria, he told me, were to be over 55, have a handicap of 18 or less, and be good company. I told him I was one out of three!
     But my name was subsequently put forward for membership and after I was accepted, I mentioned it to my friend Holly Horwood, one of Canada's top amateur senior golfers.
     "Really?" she exclaimed. "It's an impressive organization and difficult to get in. Many people wait for years, before being admitted."
      My first event was a tournament in Montreal at the Royal Montreal and Beaconsfield golf clubs, two of the oldest and established courses in Canada. I included some photos in an earlier blog about Montreal
    This year, the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary and the tournament was accordingly in Toronto. We played at two of the city's most established courses, Rosedale and Scarboro. Rosedale is one of the country's most exclusive clubs (I was told the initiation fee is around $100,000 with a 7-year wait list). It recently celebrated its 125th anniversary.
     Scarboro was designed by the legendary golf course designer A.W. Tillinghurst and opened in 1912. In those days the train brought golfers out from downtown and today the GO-TRAIN regularly runs beside the course.
As we enjoyed dinner the sun started to set over the course. It was a magical scene.
For many years, the Canadian Open was held at the Scarboro Golf and Country Club
One of the many elegant lounges and rooms.
     Playing Scarboro had a special significance for me since after my parents emigrated to Canada in 1952, we first lived in a small apartment on Scarboro Bluffs . In those days, I wasn't playing golf. I probably didn't know what it was. Instead, I was trying to learn how to skate and play hockey with Macleans magazines tucked into my socks as shin pads.
The first tee at Rosedale has a very unique quality. Once you get onto the course you forget you are in the middle of the city.
     Here are a few photos from the three-day event. While they don't do justice to either facility, the tournament was a most enjoyable experience and I would like to thank all the people who gave me rides to and from the clubs (when I wasn't using Uber), and were such good company both on and off the golf course.
The lobby of the new $28 million + clubhouse at Rosedale. Large fans keep the members cool when putting. (just joking. They're something to do with the drainage system.
I was drinking the triple bogey draft.
A lot of bald heads and grey hair amongst the members. I felt at home.
     Next year, I'll be at Royal Ottawa and Hunt Club. While I won't be wearing a red blazer, I will try to remember to bring my special tie and name tag, and play a little better.
This would have been a most appropriate license plate for me at Scarboro.
While I most certainly didn't win any prizes, my partner and I managed not to disgrace ourselves on the first day.
    ps. On my way to the golf club I noticed this public housing apartment building that had been decorated with a full height painting on a staircase. I thought it was a very attractive measure and much more delightful than the awful new mural on the Onni building in downtown Vancouver.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Opinion Vancouver Courier August 2, 2018 As Vancouver's detached housing stock is demolished, what should be saved?

Vinson House Cottages demonstrates how older homes can be saved and restored in a financially feasible way, through additional density rights.
    Last month I received a telephone call from the CBC regarding two houses designed by renowned Vancouver architects Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom. Located in South Vancouver near one another, they both had recently been put up for sale.
     Since neither was on the city’s heritage registry, the CBC was concerned “they may not live long after they sold,” which is a gentle way of saying they would be demolished to make way for larger new houses.
     I suggested they speak to Donald Luxton, the province’s premier heritage consultant. As expected, Luxton told the CBC it would be a loss in terms of our cultural and architectural history if these houses were demolished. He hoped the houses would be purchased by individuals who appreciated their architectural significance and would in turn seek heritage designation.
Regular readers of this column will know I am generally supportive of government policies to encourage heritage conservation.
     Five years ago, I opposed the Vision Vancouver proposal to allow highrises in Chinatown since I worried they would threaten the neighbourhood character. I was right, and thankfully, the mayor and Vision councillors recently reversed their zoning changes to reduce permitted building heights.
Three years ago, I wrote a column about the designation of Shaughnessy as a Heritage Conservation Area (HCA).
     While I shared the city’s desire to enhance Shaughnessy as an HCA, I thought the city should offer more equitable compensation to those with smaller houses on smaller lots and establish a reasonable appeal process since not all Shaughnessy houses had significant architectural character.
     At the time, I mentioned I was heading off to St. Petersburg to give a presentation on how Vancouver encourages property owners and the development community to conserve heritage properties.
     Those of you who have been to St. Petersburg might well wonder what a young city such as Vancouver could teach one of the world’s great cultural centres about conserving heritage.
As it happens, Vancouver has much to share.
     On a panel with the deputy mayor, local architects and heritage experts, I spoke about our Heritage Revitalization
Agreement program which offers additional density and other zoning relaxations in return for heritage designation.
     I also discussed our heritage density transfer program and buying and selling transferable heritage density.
     I’ll never forget the deputy mayor’s response.
He told the large audience that he thought I had offered some very creative suggestions to preserve a city’s heritage buildings. “Of course,” he added, “they would never work in a corrupt country like ours.”
     In my September 2015 column I also reported that a partner and I had just purchased a heritage property in West Vancouver that we were proposing to conserve in return for additional density rights. The partner was Trasolini Chetner who at the time was undertaking the Two Dorothies heritage project on West 41st Avenue.

The West Vancouver property was the Vinson House, a grand Craftsman-style house built by Valient Vivian Vinson in 1913, one year after the municipality was incorporated. Our plan was to move the house approximately 30 feet and add a single level suite below, four new garages and two detached infill homes.
     We named the proposal Vinson House Cottages.
Thanks Malcolm Parry for attending the ribbon-cutting and sharing this photo
Last week, we finally completed the development and Mayor Michael Smith helped celebrate the occasion at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
     Somewhat ironically, the mayor remarked that restoring older houses with additional infill homes is the future of West Vancouver.
      Many question whether conservation of older homes will be Vancouver’s future.
A recent UBC study says that in the past 30 years, 26,700 detached houses, or 40 per cent of all Vancouver houses, have been demolished and replaced. The study further estimates that 32,000 detached houses will be torn down in Vancouver by 2050. This represents almost half the detached housing stock.
     While many of these homes should be replaced, it will be a shame to lose others, especially fine Victorian and Edwardian heritage and character houses, and mid-century modern designs by the likes of Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom.
     Last month Vancouver approved the Making Room Housing Program. It remains to be seen whether it will help conserve older houses or lead to even more demolitions.
Let’s hope it is the former, not the latter.