In the face of the housing crisis, the City of Kingston may soon impose a tax on property owners who allow usable housing to sit empty.
A motion directing City staff to review options for a tax on vacant residential units will come before City Council at their next regular meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Moved by Councillor Conny Glenn and seconded by Councillor Paul Chaves, the motion also directs staff to report back to Council in spring 2023 on the feasibility of implementing such a tax in 2024.
Glenn explained her reason for wanting to explore a vacant residential unit tax ahead of next week’s meeting.
“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, so we have to use every tool… at our disposal. The reality is, we do have properties sitting vacant,” she said. “So in order to get those housing units back into the system, we need to use the levers we have available to do that.”
Glenn asserted that it doesn’t make sense to have available community resources sitting empty and unused. “We can sit here and continue to talk about just simply building more, but it takes a long time to build houses. So if you have something that’s available or can potentially be available in the very short term, then let’s get using that.”
In government discussions of housing, Glenn pointed out, the terminology is often impersonal: “We talk about ’houses’; we talk about ‘units’; we talk about ‘spaces.’ We don’t call them what they really are, and that’s ‘homes.’ And I think that really frames it in a different way. It’s a much more personal conversation. This is about giving more people the opportunity for homes. So for me, it’s really straightforward.”
Further, she pointed to the fact that Kingston has had a persistently low vacancy rate. “In fact, it’s lower than it was before, and that’s despite building housing — and we built a lot of housing.”
Glenn thinks the community will support the new tax. “I think the community is behind us in terms of wanting to see more housing come onto the market. But to get to the deeply affordable housing, we also have to look at making sure that all housing is available so that we have that broad spectrum.”
But how many housing units are sitting empty in the city? Glenn said that is a question that still needs research, and this move by the City, if passed, will help. As she canvassed for the fall 2022 election, and “in conversation with others,” Glenn was made aware of multiple unused housing units, she said.
“It’s a challenge for any municipality to know just how much is vacant. That’s why, when you look to other cities, they’ve asked for declarations,” she explained.
For example, all Toronto residential property owners must submit a declaration of their property’s 2022 occupancy status by February 28, 2023. Glenn echoed recent comments from Toronto Mayor John Tory.
“The vast majority of people are living in their house most of the time. But this is about getting to those properties that aren’t occupied. And will it solve our housing crisis? No. But every home that we make sure is available is one more, and that counts,” said Glenn.
Her hope is that implementing the tax will help the City get a better handle on the numbers, in addition to opening up new home opportunities. “I think, with any luck, [we’ll] get a better handle on it. We get information… and that’s important.”
If passed, this move by the City to tax vacant residential property will coincide with a corresponding increase in taxes on properties zoned other than residential that sit empty, according to Glenn. She further pointed out that, if Kingston adopts the vacant residential property tax, it would be joining a number of larger municipalities that have already made the move or are “flirting with it,” including Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, and Waterloo.
“It’s been on my radar, even before I started campaigning, that this was something we needed to make sure we understood: what was available in our community and what we could do to get people to release the property — live in it, rent it, sell it, but don’t just leave it sitting empty,” Glenn concluded.
“It’s not about forcing you… It’s just, don’t let units sit empty when we’ve got people who are desperate for a home.”
As always, you can see this motion and everything on tap for City Council by visiting the City of Kingston website.