When is an “empty” house really empty? City is learning that deciding that fact is harder than it appears

No one likes the idea that Vancouver’s red-hot housing market is being stoked by offshore investors with dirty money who purchase houses, leave them empty and then flip them, or worse, in some people’s eyes, tear them down, build something bigger and flip that.

But what’s really “empty” and what’s not? Deciding that fact is harder than it sounds, as city chief housing officer Mukhtar Latif advised council last week, listing ten legitimate reasons a home could appear empty, from redevelopment to probate or owners’ illness. (He did not include speculative flipping by offshore money launderers.)

The city is about two weeks away from retaining an outside consultant to deepen its analysis of this tricky issue.

I learned I didn’t know what “empty” is last December, when I walked one Point Grey block with a resident who sees too many homes in her neighbourhood sitting dark and apparently uninhabited. 

A tour of on both sides, knocking on doors, found many “empty” homes apparently empty a week before with Christmas lights coming out — someone must have been looking forward to the holiday — and one with a group of UBC students living a spartan life behind a forbidding front door with curtains drawn and weeks of The Courier piled outside.

An unscientific survey, to be sure, but enough to convince me Latif is right. Then there’s the problem of remedies: the reality that the city cannot, on its own, control foreign ownership, if that is indeed the root of the problem. That would require provincial or federal action, as it has elsewhere.