Time for the city to cut loose

Here's a picture for you. While empty, serviced lots sit unused downtown, Whitehorse is tearing up popular residential greenbelts to build homes.

Here’s a picture for you.

While empty, serviced lots sit unused downtown, Whitehorse is tearing up popular residential greenbelts to build homes.

Also, we’re in the midst of a housing crisis that has stretched for years – because there aren’t enough building lots available.

Again, look at all the fully serviced, underutilized land downtown.

The city’s hands are tied because the vacant land is privately owned, said Mayor Bev Buckway recently.

Bollocks.

The city isn’t shackled. Not even close.

It has the power to set municipal tax rates. And that same tool can be used to provide landowners with subsidies – a carrot, if you will.

The city could offer tax breaks or subsidies to developers willing to build downtown. It could also penalize speculators who let viable residential properties sit idle.

They could continue to lie fallow, of course, but it would cost the owner a fair bit of coin.

Why?

Because the city is in a bind. And, when you find yourself in such circumstances, you take action to fix it.

Of course, this might make some of those landowners cranky. It might also anger some downtown residents, who fret about the character of their neighbourhood.

But let us look at the alternative.

The city is expanding and plunking expensive infrastructure into virgin land while serviced land sits idle.

That expansion isn’t only expensive to build, it also adds to the cost of running the city – there are more roads to plow, more lights to install and power, expanded bus service … you get the picture.

Building population density downtown improves business opportunities, is better for the environment and makes the city a much more interesting place.

It’s also a lot cheaper.

This year, the city is raising taxes four per cent. And, to lessen the blow (and the blowback), council has drained city reserves not earmarked for specific projects to $12,000 from $1.1 million.

That’s budgetary sleight of hand that only works once.

Next year? Well, we’ll see.

Bottom line, city council’s decision to coddle landowners sitting on vacant land is costing all of us tens of millions of dollars in development. And more in operational costs. Not to mention the environmental impacts.

By comparison, encouraging the development of vacant lots, through taxes and subsidies, would cost the city next to nothing.

Taxes are going up. And they’re going to keep going up.

Buckway says the city’s hands are tied.

Well, perhaps it’s time we find someone with enough gumption to pick up a knife.

(Richard Mostyn)

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