The City of Ottawa is closer to creating a tax on nothing.
Landowners who have nothing happening on their properties will have to buy yearly permits under a staff-recommended bylaw that was endorsed by a council committee on Thursday.
The city has been crafting policies to encourage decent property upkeep, protect heritage buildings and, especially during this term of council, increase the local housing supply. Most recently, council approved a residential vacant unit tax with hopes it will spur landlords to quickly rent out their units.
Under the proposed bylaw, a $1,703 annual permit would be required as soon as a property has been unoccupied for 120 consecutive days.
The city would use the permit revenue to hire two bylaw staff to administer the program.
City staff identified 216 vacant properties across Ottawa during their last check in October 2021. The ward with the most vacant properties was Rideau-Vanier with 51. Kitchissippi (38), Somerset (29), Rideau-Rockcliffe (13) and Knoxdale-Merivale (12) rounded out the top five wards.
Most of the properties on the list were used for homes; the 156 vacant residential properties all together had 190 units.
Of the 216 vacant properties last identified, 110 of them had development plans in the works.
According to staff, vacant properties are 14 times more likely to cause calls to bylaw officers compared to occupied properties. Vacant properties are also 1.5 times more likely to draw responses by emergency services.
“We need this desperately,” Lorrie Marlow, president of the Mechanicsville Community Association, said as she described some “nightmare” properties in the neighbourhood.
The permit system would only apply to buildings and lands that are fully vacant.
The city launched the bylaw review as part of the council term’s work plan. Council approved a vacant buildings strategy in 2013 to enforce property standards, and at the beginning of the current term, council asked staff to conduct the review.
When the vacant building strategy was created in 2013, the city knew of 95 vacant properties, and the increase since then has driven enforcement work for bylaw services.
It would be up to landowners to tell the city when their properties have been vacant for 120 days, triggering the permit requirements. The vacancy period would end when the landowner produces an occupancy permit or other proof showing the city that the land is being used as the zoning prescribes.
Not all vacant properties would fall under the permit system.
Exclusions would cover principal residences, cottages, natural areas allowed under zoning, agricultural properties, City of Ottawa-owned properties and non-heritage properties in rural zones, other than rural villages and rural residential zones.
Non-compliance could lead to fines of up to $1,000 and there would be a process to escalate the fines to a maximum of $100,000 per day.
The city is also offering a two-year exemption for paying permit fees if landowners have died, allowing families time to settle the estates, and when owners are in hospital or other care. Properties damaged in natural disasters or other catastrophic events, like fires, would also receive two-year fee exemptions, and so would community housing agencies in case there are shortfalls in program funding.
Homebuilders, especially those constructing new communities, didn’t like that the draft bylaw would impact lots eyed for homes in new suburban neighbourhoods.
Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association, warned councillors about the “overreach.”
It’s not right for a developer to pay permit fees for every lot in a subdivision plan that isn’t occupied yet Burggraaf said. “It’s only going to increase the cost of all those new homes,” he said.
Burggraaf says he’s not against the permit system applying to existing neighbourhoods, acknowledging that some vacant properties could be nuisances. He questioned if a property clearly under construction should still require a vacant property permit.
Thanks to an amendment proposed by Coun. Eli El-Chantiry and endorsed by the committee, homebuilders with subdivision plans would only pay one permit fee for the vacant lots in the subdivision, plus $25 per lot as an administration fee.
A recommendation to increase taxi meter fares was also on the committee’s agenda.
The committee approved a 10-per-cent increase to the fares, which are regulated by the city. Cabbies asked for the taxi meter increase because their expenses, like those for fuel and maintenance, have been soaring. There hasn’t been a taxi meter increase in 12 years.
In another move to help cabbies, the committee knocked down their commercial general liability insurance from $5 million to $2 million.
All bylaw changes recommended by the committee are scheduled to be considered by council on Wednesday.