The City of Kingston took a step closer to implementing a tax on landlords who allow usable residential units to sit vacant.
At its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, Kingston City Council passed a motion to have City staff investigate the feasibility of a tax on residential properties that sit vacant when they could be used.
The motion, brought to the floor by Sydenham District Councillor Conny Glenn, asked that City staff to review options for a tax on vacant residential units and report back to Council in the Spring of 2023 on the necessity and viability of imposing such a tax, for potential implementation in 2024.
Glenn said, “There’s been a lot of concern that this is posed as a tax. Well, the reality is, if you’re [renting out] that property, you’re not going to be taxed… We’re asking you to contribute to the solution [to the housing crisis].”
“Additionally,” she said, this measure is certainly “not aimed at our snowbirds,” who travel south to spend the winter in warmer areas; instead, “It’s for the properties that sit vacant month after month after month and cause concern in our communities.”
Glenn pointed out that she knows of situations in her own and other districts where “properties [are] sitting vacant when we have people who can’t afford a home.” She said this pertains not just to the homeless population, but also to young families and any other “people who are working but unable to get into the rental or the home buying market.”
Glenn maintained that “the City has been building rapidly, and yet we still have a persistently low vacancy rate. So, this [potential tax] is a way to urge people forward.” She emphasized that this motion was only asking staff to look into and report on the number of vacant homes and the feasibility of such a program, not a vote on whether there should or should not be a tax.
Councillor Brandon Tozzo of Kingscourt-Rideau District was the first to announce his support for obtaining a staff report, saying, “There is a portion of people who buy houses, and they treat it like a casino: they buy it, they sit on it, they wait for it to appreciate or depreciate in value. It’s unfathomable to me, with my home [which is] mostly owned by the bank — but that is a real occurrence, and I’m curious about the data, to find out how much this is an issue in Kingston.”
Countryside District Councillor Gary Oosterhof was opposed to the idea, saying, “I’ve never really thought a lot about how many homes [sit empty]; I gotta believe it’s a low number. So I do wonder about [this use of] staff resources.”
“But there’s something else about it that really bothers me,” he went on. “We, as councillors, have a lot of responsibility here, and until we get our house in order as a City, how can we look at homes and say that they have to now be penalized? I find that really almost offensive… when we have not done our job well enough in this City.”
Oosterhof then doubled down on his skepticism: “I can’t imagine there would be even 100 homes… sitting there [empty]; that wouldn’t be very wise.”
“Do we penalize ourselves… for just not having the vision and the insight and the wisdom to make housing happen?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s impossible for some developers to get the housing built; we make it impossible. I know this for a living fact. So we can do a lot better. I think we have to look at our own failures before we go beyond what we should be doing, and I think it’s a bit of a precedent.”
Oosterhof concluded by suggesting that better education of the public was needed about homes sitting empty and that the problem would then “go away on its own.”
Despite some agreement with Oosterhof by Pittsburgh District Councillor Ryan Boehme on the issue of development, the rest of Council expressed interest in having the research completed by staff.
The City’s Chief Financial Officer, Desiree Kennedy, pointed out that the concerns about the use of staff time were unfounded because, through the City’s taxation services division, “we are actually already scheduled to bring a report back to Council… on June 1… to look at options for eliminating the discounted tax classes that we currently have for the commercial and industrial vacant and excess land properties. That’s already been in the works. So, we were comfortable with just adding this piece on to that report, and bringing whatever data we can… get and some of the research that we can do between now and that meeting, and just include it as part of that report.”
The motion passed by a vote of 12 to one, with only Oosterhof opposed.