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Meet the Kitsilano man saddled with a $19K empty homes tax bill

Steve McClure: "I am not a libertarian anti-tax wacko. I believe in paying my fair share of tax. The emphasis should be on fair."
Steve McClure told city council Wednesday that he and his wife's dream to live part-time in both Japan and Vancouver in their retirement years is being threatened by the empty homes tax.

Steve McClure and his wife, Rie, are living what he described as a dream.

That dream is having a home in Japan, where his wife is from, and a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, where he was born in 1958.

He is a semi-retired journalist, his wife is a retired school teacher.

“We have worked and saved hard to realize our dream of spending our retirement years in the two places we love most — Japan and Canada,” McClure told city council Wednesday. “That dream is threatened by the empty homes tax.”

The couple has been saddled with an empty homes tax bill of $19,100 for 2021. That’s because McClure and his wife spent just under the six months required for him to be exempt from paying the tax on his Kitsilano apartment.

He arrived from Japan May 11, his wife joined him July 6 and they departed Oct. 16.

The couple has appealed the bill, hoping it will result in the city giving consideration to seniors with secondary homes and understand how impractical it is to find a tenant for the balance of a year.

“We thought my niece would stay there for some of the remaining months, but she changed her plans at the last minute due to the impact of the pandemic on her life plans, and didn't stay in the condo at all,” McClure said. “We couldn’t find a reliable tenant on short notice.”

He added that neither he nor his wife are comfortable renting their apartment to strangers. That is especially true for his wife, who “recoils at the idea of treating our home as a commodity to be used for financial gain.”

“She and I are collateral damage resulting from a poorly drafted clumsily enforced bylaw,” he said. “We are not rich property speculators.”

McClure shared with council that it wasn’t the first time the city fined the couple under the empty homes tax. In 2020, they received a bill for $7,870, even though his niece — a University of British Columbia student — stayed in the apartment for three months and McClure for another five months.

“We appealed the assessment,” he said. “I am happy to report that we got our money back.”

'Like a kick in the teeth'

McClure said he understands the intent of the tax — to encourage people who have bought homes as speculative investments and have left them empty to either rent or sell their properties to help those affected by the housing crisis — but he feels he and his wife are being penalized for their lifestyle.

“This is wrong and frustrating,” he said. “As I try to re-establish myself in the city I love, it's like a kick in the teeth. I am not a libertarian anti-tax wacko. I believe in paying my fair share of tax. The emphasis should be on fair.”

He argued the tax lets politicians and bureaucrats give the impression of doing something about the housing crisis. But, he added, the tax can do little to counter the commodification of real estate in Vancouver.

Council made a series of amendments Wednesday to the empty homes tax, but none involved reducing the number of months a property has to be occupied to avoid the tax, which has generated more than $115 million in net revenue since 2017.

One of the most controversial amendments was to retroactively return $3.8 million to developers charged under the tax for keeping a total of 60 new, unsold condominiums vacant in 2022.

Asked about that move by council, McClure said in an interview, “That does seem a wee bit inconsistent, does it not?” He added: “I would hope that city council in the [same] spirit that motivated it to give back the $3.8 million to the developers would be similarly motivated to treat us in an equitable, fair manner.”

'I just want a peaceful life'

Coun. Lisa Dominato acknowledged after Wednesday’s meeting that the amendments made to the tax wouldn’t help McClure’s case. Dominato said she was familiar with McClure’s concerns from conversations she had with him in the previous council term.

“In terms of the exemptions and changes that were made today, I don't think they're going to resolve his situation,” she said, noting the six-month timeframe to avoid exemptions would have to be adjusted. “I don't know how many people are in that situation. So it may be something that we look at at a later date.”

Meanwhile, McClure shared after the meeting that he is also fighting the provincial government after he and his wife were levied over the past two years with almost $14,000 in fines related to the speculation and vacancy tax.

“I just want a peaceful life without having to deal with soul-crushing bullshit, not to put too fine a point on it,” he said in an email Thursday.

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