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When a house isn’t a home, homelessness doesn’t mean a lot

May 13, 2015

Steve Borik, a 56-year-old homeless handyman, is being punished with forced eviction today for making a clean and tidy home for himself on an otherwise empty building lot slated for future development on the north bank of the Fraser River, in South Vancouver.

At the same time, on the south side of the Fraser, a couple in a wealthy subdivision of West Richmond have gone to the media to complain about the mansion next door that has never been lived in and is simply being used as an investment vehicle by an absentee owner.

The couple, Brian and Linda Cooper, believe it’s wrong. They say the space shouldn’t be left empty, that it should be used to provide “habitation for live human beings”.

By rights he shouldn’t be here, so there!

I imagine that’s exactly how the homeless Mr. Borik felt six months ago when he came across the empty waterfront lot adjacent to a large plot of undeveloped, fenced-off land — that it should provide habitation for a live human being, namely him.

He cleared it, cleaned it up, brought in tarps and stuff and by all accounts the skilled carpenter made himself a  comfortable, well-ordered, place to live.

But the law says that it’s all right for people to leave the real estate they own empty and unused. What’s wrong is when homeless people come across empty and unused lots and presume to set up squatter camps on them.

TransLink Transit Police on Tuesday issued a final eviction notice to Mr. Borik on behalf of the Port of Metro Vancouver and the Ministry of Forests; ordering him to be off the site by today (Wednesday. May 13) so that a contractor can come in to clear the campsite Thursday morning.

I can’t tell you why the the Transit Police are involved but I can say that the eviction notice was issued on the pretext of health protection.

Although this is no case of a homeless person squatting in squalor, with a needle hanging out of their arm, making their toilet wherever they please.

The Province item makes a point of detailing how clean and sanitary the squat is — and the Transit Police spokesperson admitted that the Borik had caused no problems leading up to the eviction notice.

Borik told the Province newspaper that he had no drug or alcohol issues and instead credited his homelessness to the double whammy of a difficult divorce settlement and bowel surgery.

He doesn’t take welfare or handouts and says he couldn’t take living in a bedbug-infested hotel room in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Borik knows that the industrial land he’s been squatting on won’t be developed for a few years and he would prefer to stay right where he is.

He didn’t tell the Province reporter about wanting to maintain his independence, or how his squat was certainly safer, and probably better than anything B.C. Housing would have for him as a non-drug addict — that all went without saying.

All he told the reporter was: “It is quiet and beautiful here,” and “I’m just trying to survive.”

All Transit Police media adviser Anne Drennan had to say on the subject was that Mr. Borik was somewhere he shouldn’t be.

“It is private property slated for other use,” she explained. “We are going to find him a legitimate place to stay.”

It also went without saying that a destitute homeless person had no business being free to enjoy a million dollar view.

Time to tax absentee ownership like the business investment it is

The news stories about the empty “executive-style mansion” in Richmond, B.C. say that while the property has never been lived in, it has been sold twice, once in 2011 for $1.4 million and again this year for $2.3 million.

That’s a $900,000 difference, or a 64 percent increase in value in four years.

Metro Vancouver homes are some of the best investments around — higher-yielding than any long-term bonds and just as safe (safe as houses, in fact). Isn’t it time that mechanisms were in place to tax homes-as-investments accordingly?

A friend of mine suggests the simple expedient of taxing unlived-in residential property at a business rate rather than a residential rate. This seems straightforward, though I don’t know off-hand what the rates are of any of the eight municipal tax categories, as enumerated by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

My friend tells me that business rates are higher than residential rates, which is the point.

An absentee owner surcharge and other “week” solutions

I also had the thought of charging would-be absentee owners a surcharge on any residential properties they buy. This surcharge would be equal to the annual increase of the property’s assessed value.

If a residential property’s current assessed value of $930,300 was 3.4 percent higher than its assessed value one year earlier, then a surcharge equal to the value of that increase ($31,630) would be tacked on top of the normal price of the property.

If it was sold to persons or interests who intended to leave it unoccupied, they would then pay the full price plus the surcharge, for a total of $961,930.

If the buyer could show that the residential property would be their primary residence or someone else’s — that they would be renting it or leasing it out to serve as accommodation — then they wouldn’t have to pay the surcharge.

The good points:

  • Pretty darn simple
  • Avoids the need for a city-wide property audit.
  • Easily targets only absentee owners.
  • Discourages leaving residential properties empty.
  • Doesn’t put anyone unnecessarily out of pocket.

The bad:

  • Only applies to new sales.
  • Is always 12 months behind the increase in housing prices.

Something does need to be done to find a solution to empty homes and following precedent, I think I know what it is.

Somewhere in the calendar, after Bike to Work Week later in May and the International Jazz Festival in June and before the Vancouver International Film Festival in September and Homeless Action Week in October, the City of Vancouver needs to throw together a week of seminars, lectures and social media engagement to raise awareness of and stimulate discussion of absentee residential property ownership (he says, tongue firmly planted in his cheek).

5 Comments
  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Short reply to this excellent post: ‘Is our society evolving?’ (I have a much, much longer one rattlin’ around in my head…… I am soooo angry……)

    • Thanks. Glad someone read it. I softballed the point. I wasn’t trying to point fingers or condemn anyone. I think as a region we’re delibarately leaving the problems of housing affordability to fester and I think there are a number of mutually-exclusive attitudes floating around that are entirely based on economic entitlement.

      The Coopers may have felt it was wrong that the mansion next door was unlived-in but I wonder how they would’ve felt had homeless Steve Borik pitched a tent on the lawn of the unlived-in mansion. I really believe that the Coopers would’ve called the police.

  2. Reblogged this on brainsections.

  3. Sandra permalink

    The solution to these 2 issues is to allow Steve Borikto to live rent-free in the “unlived-in mansion”. I am sure that he would make himself a comfortable, well-ordered, place to live in a tiny portion of it. No doubt that he would take very good care of it, not cause any problems for anyone and would have a roof over his head. 🙂

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