Big majority backs absentee homeowner tax: Poll

Foreign ownership debate 'racist' to some poll respondents, but most agree non-resident property owners don't add to community

Failed Vancouver mayoral candidate Meena Wong proposed a tax on absentee owners in last fall's municipal election campaign.

Nearly three-quarters of B.C. residents support a tax on absentee homeowners to help quell real estate speculation, according to a new poll.

The Insights West online survey found 73 per cent rated it a “good” or “very good” idea, while 17 per cent called it a bad idea and 10 per cent weren’t sure.

The poll also found 76 per cent of homeowners believe the value of their own homes is raised when foreigners buy into the market.

Eighty-six per cent of respondents believe people who own homes but don’t live in them are speculators and not really part of the community.

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Opinions were also broken down by ethnicity and the poll found 35 per cent of East Asian respondents – 21 per cent of all respondents – believe the debate about foreign real estate ownership in B.C. is “inherently racist.”

Insights West vice-president Mario Canseco said that’s a problem for policy makers trying to find a proposal that won’t alienate important groups of voters.

“You don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardize some of your votes,” Canseco said.

“There’s a group of people – one out of three East Asians – who whenever they hear about this discussion of a tax for absentee homeowners they do believe it’s question related to race and not necessarily related to economics.”

Despite the discomfort of some with the foreign ownership debate, the poll found East Asians just as supportive of an absentee owner tax, which was championed last fall by failed Vancouver mayoral candidate Meena Wong.

Seventy-three per cent of East Asians back the idea as good or very good, while 74 per cent of self-described “whites” backed it and support was strongest of all among South Asians at 83 per cent.

East Asians were also strongly in agreement (88 per cent) that absentee owners are speculators and not contributing to the community.

Questions have been raised about the practicality of enforcing an absentee owner tax, and Canseco acknowledged the issue is more pressing in Vancouver and nearby municipalities where house prices have soared the most.

He pointed to New York City as one jurisdiction where such a tax is in the works.

“The way we feel about this with big houses in the City of Vancouver is the way they feel about it in the City of New York with big penthouses,” he said.

Owners of New York luxury apartments worth more than $5 million who can’t prove they live there at least six months a year will have to pay a minimum 0.5 per cent property tax surcharge, escalating in steps to four per cent for units worth more than $25 million.

“They’re trying to find ways to make those people pay their fair share because they’re only there two weeks a year so they’re not paying it in sales tax,” Canseco said, suggesting something similar might work here.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and condo marketer Bob Rennie last month proposed a tax on real estate speculation, although some observers questioned whether short-term flipping is the real problem.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong has pledged to explore tax mechanisms to support housing affordability, but has also cautioned he intends to tread carefully to avoid damaging the equity built up in the homes of existing residents.

The poll found 77 per cent of Metro Vancouver respondents support an absentee owner tax, compared to 74 per cent on Vancouver Island and 58 per cent in the rest of B.C. Support was also strong across all age groups, income levels and political persuasions.

The survey of 825 B.C. adults was conducted in mid-May with a margin of error of 3.5 per cent.

The poll also underscored the popularity of real estate as an investment. It found 38 per cent of B.C. residents rated real estate the “best long-term investment you can make”, while 18 per cent weren’t sure, 16 per cent named mutual funds, 10 per cent said GICs, eight per cent said stocks, another eight per cent said gold and one per cent said bonds.