New Westminster city council believes a vacant property tax on commercial properties could help local business districts.
Council unanimously approved a motion submitted by Coun. Ruby Campbell which will go to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association for its consideration at the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting. The motion asks the Province of BC to provide local governments with an option to introduce a vacant property tax that would be applicable to commercial properties.
The motion states that the province has adopted a vacancy tax on vacant residential properties as one tool to assure land speculation does not result in property standing fallow to the detriment of community livability and other goals. It also says commercial property values are inflating provincewide, and increasingly facing investment speculation that results in similar underutilization of commercial properties in many B.C. municipalities.
Campbell said her motion has come out of discussions with the city’s economic development advisory committee, the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce and members of two of the city’s business improvement associations.
“All have been asking for strategies and regulatory tools to support the revitalization, underperforming derelict and vacant properties,” she said.
Mayor Patrick Johnstone is looking forward to debating the motion at the Lower Mainland Local Government Association.
“I'm sure this is going to be a vigorous debate … so it will be fun to take part of that debate,” he said.
Two New Westminster Chamber of Commerce representatives attended the Feb. 27 council meeting to voice their support of the motion.
Angie Whitfield, executive director, said the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce supports the implementation of a vacant property tax on commercial properties.
“It's no doubt that the derelict buildings in our commercial districts are not helping create a healthy environment for the businesses in those spaces,” she said. “Anything we can do to help develop these properties and create a healthier community is certainly in the interest of our New Westminster businesses.”
Whitfield said the chamber sees the tax as another tool that can be used to deter land speculation and to ensure commercial spaces are being used to their full potential. While the chamber “wholeheartedly” supports the intent of the motion, she urged the city to proceed with caution so it doesn’t inadvertently create any negative side effects.
Rich Patterson, vice president of the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce, said he sometimes thinks of “tax” as a four-letter word, but in this case he thinks it’s necessary because of what’s happening with some properties.
“It's just very apparent that they've sat there,” he said. “They're derelict. They're an eyesore. They could be dangerous. And really, it's the opportunity that we're all missing.”
Campbell said the motion builds upon a motion presented in September 2021 by then city councillors Patrick Johnstone (now mayor) and Mary Trentadue (who did not seek re-election) related to strategies and regulatory tools the city could use to support the rapid revitalization of under-performing derelict and vacant properties on Columbia Street in the downtown.
“I know our community has been requesting the city have tools to help revitalize under-performing derelict vacant properties,” she said. “I also hear, as we heard today, and support our business community's desire to be engaged on how and when to apply the tools. So I also support that engagement process when and if we have this tool.”
What took so long?
Coun. Daniel Fontaine said he’s very supportive of the motion, but questioned why council didn’t bring it forward sooner
“It would have been great to have seen this motion brought forward much earlier, in the previous term of council, when the vacancy and speculation tax for residential homes came in,” he said. “We have witnessed on our major arterials and in our business districts a hollowing out. We see too many boarded-up windows; we see businesses that sit empty for not only weeks or months, but years – some of them decades.”
Fontaine said there are a lot of small businesses in the city that would love to have access to some additional retail space.
“I really do think this is one tool, it's not the only tool but I do think it is one tool that we should be looking at as a way of addressing some of the decay and the lack of economic activity,” he said.