Nearly 10,000 condos – one in eight – sit empty in Vancouver, according to a city investigation into vacant housing, a phenomenon that's often blamed for hurting affordability and sucking the life out of neighbourhoods.
The finding, contained in a report released Tuesday based on an analysis of B.C. Hydro smart meter data from 2002 to 2014, leaves the city grappling with how to convince owners to rent their condos in a market where rental vacancy rates hover near zero.
But the report also quashed speculation that empty homes are largely responsible for Vancouver's affordability woes, as the city's overall vacancy rate has remained stable at 4.8 per cent over the past decade despite skyrocketing real estate prices.
Still, the vacancy rate for condos hits 12.5 per cent compared to one per cent for singlefamily homes and duplexes, according to the analysis by local company Ecotagious. Of the estimated 10,800 vacant housing units, 9,750 are condos, 950 are singlefamily houses or duplexes and only 125 are rowhouses. The vacancy rate for purposebuilt rental apartments is around zero.
Units were defined as nonoccupied for 12 months if they were vacant for August, September and the following June and July. (Energy use data is not reliable during winter months because many units are automatically heated.) The data does not include basement suites and, since it was anonymous, does not lend any insight into why homes are vacant.
While the overall rate of empty homes is comparable to Metro Vancouver and other Canadian cities, Mayor Gregor Robertson said it's a problem because of Vancouver's acute affordability problems and low rental vacancy rates.
"It's unacceptable that so many homes are left empty at a time so many of our residents are struggling to find appropriate housing," Robertson said.
Robertson and council will ask the province for the legal tools to track property ownership and ensure occupation of vacant units. They also directed staff to investigate ways to convince owners to rent their condos, be it through taxation or incentives, and to increase the supply of units people actually live in, such as apartments and townhouses.
But Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C., is skeptical these condos are totally vacant and could easily be added to the rental supply. While many investors actively speculate in the condo market, some businesspeople and vacationers buy condos to use for a few weeks a year, he said.
"The reality is we're going to have, especially in the downtown core area where there's highrises and highend property, a lot of people who own units who occupy them on rare occasions," he said.
Other owners simply don't want the liability of tenants, Gioventu said. The crux of the issue is whether municipal or provincial governments will step in to control how these owners use their property, he added.