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Property taxes should better reflect different types of homes

Single-family lots and multi-family properties should have different taxation categories
Columnist Michael Geller wonders why townhouses and condos requiring less amenities are taxed at the
Columnist Michael Geller wonders why townhouses and condos requiring less amenities are taxed at the same rate as a single family house just because they’re assessed at the same value. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Everyone knows that July 1 is Canada Day, while our neighbours to the south mark July 4 as Independence Day. But both are special days for other reasons.

In British Columbia, July 1 is also Valuation Day. It is the date B.C. Assessment estimates the market value of your home to determine next year’s property taxes.

July 4 is the date the balance of this year’s property taxes is due. (I hope you didn’t forget.)

My first 2018 Courier column was about property taxes. Since then, property taxes have been in the news on an almost daily basis, thanks -- or no thanks -- to Vancouver’s Empty Home Tax, and the province’s so-called School and Speculation Taxes.

I recently sat down with veteran broadcaster Stu McNish who hosts “Conversations that Matter” to discuss these taxes and other concerns about B.C.’s property assessment system.

We are being told our property taxes are too low and should be increased to collect money from foreigners who do not pay Canadian income taxes, and to transfer wealth from homeowners in $3-million-plus homes and those with second homes, to those struggling to afford housing.

While I oppose these NDP government tax changes, I would like to see changes to our current property taxation system to make it more equitable and effective.

While travelling in Vietnam, I noticed a lot of tall, skinny buildings, often in rural locations. I asked my guide why the buildings were designed this way and was told it was because of property taxes. Skinny buildings paid lower taxes than wider buildings since they required less roadway, sidewalks, water and sewer pipes.

In B.C., residential property taxes are based on the value of a property. I once owned a house on an island at the end of a long road and a downtown highrise apartment. Since both were assessed at the same value, the property taxes were the same.

However, the apartment required fewer roads and services to be constructed and maintained. It received no municipal garbage collection; residents paid for private collection through their strata fees.

While property taxes cover more than just roads and sewer pipes, if we want to promote more efficient uses of single-family land, and encourage people to live in more compact, sustainable forms of housing, B.C. Assessment should have more than one residential classification category.

As a minimum, I would propose two categories: one for homes on single-family lots and one for multi-family properties. In future, there could be additional categories for rowhouses, apartments and possibly rental housing.

Each category would have its own mill rate. This is the mathematical factor used by municipalities to calculate property taxes, based on assessed value. Single-family properties would have a higher mill rate than townhouses and apartments.

Although the total taxes collected would remain the same, the result would be higher property taxes for single family homes and lower taxes for multi-family homes of the same assessed value.

While my single-family neighbours might not like this approach, it would better correlate taxes with services. Ultimately, it would encourage more efficient use of land and reward people for living in more compact housing forms.

I also encourage the B.C. government to change its tax policies as they relate to certain ALR properties. British Columbia law stipulates that agricultural properties with more than two acres can keep their farm status with very significant tax breaks, if they sell just $2,500 worth of farm products a year. This can be achieved with a vegetable garden or a few dozen chickens in a corner of the estate.

As a result, many Southlands and Richmond mansions are paying less in tax than small East Vancouver houses.

I complained about this in a Courier column exactly four years ago. Sadly, nothing has happened.

Our property tax system requires other changes to prevent local shops and restaurants from shutting their doors because of high property taxes, since they are based on “highest and best use” (which may be a future highrise), not as a florist or fish market.

But that is another story for another day.