Vacant unit tax declarations pour in — but whether it's a success depends who you ask

There have been roughly 140,000 vacant unit tax declarations since the City of Ottawa's online portal opened earlier in January. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)
There have been roughly 140,000 vacant unit tax declarations since the City of Ottawa's online portal opened earlier in January. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)

Is Ottawa's response rate for assessing how many vacant residential units might be taxable a success so far?

It depends who you ask.

On Friday, the City of Ottawa said it had received about 140,000 declarations about the new vacant unit tax, representing 42 per cent of eligible residential properties.

For Cheryl Parrott with the Hintonburg Community Association, that's a "tremendous uptake."

But Alex Cullen said there's still "a huge hill to climb."

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

The tax is meant to increase affordable housing by discouraging owners from having livable homes sitting empty for six months or more a year.

The Hintonburg Community Association lobbied city hall to bring in the tax before it was passed last year.

"I know people [who] got their [first] letter back in late November, early December were chomping at the bit and trying to get it done," said Parrott, the association's security committee chair.

"They've made it very easy online. It took just seconds really to fill it out."

Robyn Miller/CBC
Robyn Miller/CBC

Cullen, the past president of the Federation of Citizens' Associations of Ottawa, agreed the declaration process is smooth but said there are still over 200,000 homes whose owners need to be heard from.

"This is the challenge with the negative option billing approach that the city's adopted," he said.

"People have to declare their status to avoid the tax. And if they miss the mail, if they haven't done so, they were going to be vulnerable and that's the problem."

When asked for the number of vacant units declared so far, the city said Monday that preliminary figures will be provided to city councillors in May.

The tax doesn't apply to someone's principal residence, yet homeowners who forget to check the box by mid-March each year risk paying a $250 late fee — though it's being waived for 2023 — or possibly thousands of dollars in taxes.

Mandatory to declare each year

The city has estimated the tax, which will be one per cent of a property's assessed value, will apply to somewhere in the range of 1,650 properties.

But to truly know how many residential properties are vacant, the city is making it mandatory for all 330,000 property owners to submit a declaration every year.

A vacant unit will be defined as one that is not an owner's or renter's principal residence and is unoccupied for more than 184 days during the previous calendar year.

The tax will apply to buildings with up to six units. There are some exemptions, such as if a property is being sold or renovated or if the owner is in care.

Ottawa had considered a voluntary or complaint-based system, but research showed that method would be ineffective, staff said. Instead, the mandatory approach will match what's currently happening in Vancouver and planned for Toronto.