Underused lots, and tax policy

Underused lots, and tax policy I echo many of Kirk Cameron's comments to council about the excess vacant and underutilized lands and properties in downtown Whitehorse (as reported in Build Up, Not Out, on February 9). With the current housing shortage,

I echo many of Kirk Cameron’s comments to council about the excess vacant and underutilized lands and properties in downtown Whitehorse (as reported in Build Up, Not Out, on February 9). With the current housing shortage, Cameron asked why are we looking to develop large areas that were previously recreation and wildlife areas when we have vacant lots in areas of the city that are suitable for housing people?

Cameron pointed out a variety of types of land uses (vacant, underutilized, and abandoned buildings) that hinder densification and detract from a vibrant city.

Mayor Bev Buckway’s reply to these comments was that the city can’t force private owners to develop or sell and that there’s not much more that the city can do other than encourage them to develop.

But, in this case, the city is overlooking one of its main powers, which is the power to levy taxes.

Through taxation, the city can provide as strong a disincentive as is needed to ‘encourage’ owners of vacant lots to develop. This strategy is used in cities around the world to prevent high vacancy rates and to counter real estate speculation that leads to high vacancy. An extra tax on vacant lots or abandoned buildings need only be as high as to provide a reasonable incentive to develop (I’ll let the economists figure out what that is) and can provide a timeline in which to do it before there are financial costs to the property owner.

Come to think of it, we already do this in many communities in Yukon, including Whitehorse. When you purchase a parcel of newly developed land you are required to build a house to a certain size and standard within a specified period of time. If you don’t, you lose the land and your deposit.

The policy is pretty clear: undeveloped and underdeveloped properties in the city are not welcome and financial disincentives will be used to prevent them.

The question is, why should land that is not newly developed be any different?

Vacant lots impose both a planning and a financial burden on cities and their residents. Why bother spending all that capital money to develop new neighbourhoods when the people who would move to the new neighbourhoods could be accommodated on existing vacant and underdeveloped lands if they were developed?

Developing new neighbourhoods costs all taxpayers money, whether the work is done by the city or other governments. Vacant lands are a further hit to the city’s bottom line because taxes are assessed based on the value of the land and the improvements. If there are no improvements (i.e., buildings), the city doesn’t collect a lot of taxes.

If the city wants to act on vacant and underdeveloped lands within its boundaries, it has all the tools it needs. It need only decide to use them.

Nathan Millar

Whitehorse