Ottawa homeowner invites city to ring his bell

George Veitch didn’t appreciate being singled out for a municipal ‘vacant unit tax’ audit. So he refused to comply — and it worked.

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Red and white lights decorate the tree outside George Veitch’s City View home. Festive ornaments adorn the front windows, while a small Christmas tree in the front room can be seen from the street. And if you ring the doorbell, as I did one morning this week, the man himself answers, extending a hand in greeting and offering a cup of coffee.

If he’s only pretending to live here, he’s doing a masterful job. I’m totally convinced that this is his home.

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And so, it seems, is he.

So imagine his surprise when the city recently sent him a letter informing him that he was being audited for the Vacant Unit Tax. The letter asked him to prove that the declaration he filled out almost a year ago — in which he said that this home, which he, his wife and son have occupied since they built it four years ago, is their principal residence — was indeed truthful.

All he now had to do, according to the letter, was provide any two bits of evidence from this list: seven or more months of utility bills; vehicle registration or insurance documentation; government-issued ID; or government correspondence with the occupant’s name and address on it. Failure to do so within 30 days would result in the tax being levied, with possible additional penalties and fines.

His was one of 1,525 such audits the city initiated this fall, with more planned in future.

Really? Is this the best way to ferret out cheaters?

For those who missed it, the Vacant Unit Tax, or VUT, is a new tool through which the city hopes to address at least some of the current housing crisis by taxing property owners who allow residences to sit empty, to the tune of one per cent of the property’s value. If the empty house you own is worth $1 million, you could be on the hook for $10,000 annually if you leave it unoccupied. The idea is to get more homes on the market, either through sales or rentals, and thus more people into homes.

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On its face it’s a great idea, although whether it will make any real dent in the problem remains to be seen. Meanwhile, concerns that it unfairly puts the responsibility on homeowners to prove they’re not cheats is already coming true.

“In concept, the idea is noble,” Orléans West-Innes Coun. Laura Dudas told me. “But in reality, it’s red tape-heavy. It captures too many people who don’t need to be captured for any particular reason, and it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t have found an easier way for our residents to be able to address this issue, but yet not make sure that they’re doing the legwork on behalf of the city.”

That latter part irks Veitch so much that he refused to comply.

When he filled out his declaration earlier this year, he says, he did so with a bit of a shrug, as many of us did. It wasn’t terribly onerous. But when the city came back last month with an audit process that he describes as “bullying,” he said no.

“Why should I do your work for you?” he asked in a letter to city officials, including the mayor. “I must admit that being threatened with penalties and fines by the City of Ottawa for doing absolutely nothing wrong or illegal is a first for me.”

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Then Veitch offered a more reasonable solution. “Have someone from the city drop by,” he wrote, “look at the Christmas decorations, the cars in the driveway, ring the door bell and when we answer the door you will know that my wife and son and I all live here.”

How addresses to be audited are selected isn’t entirely clear. A September release from the city said “The audit uses varied criteria to select an unbiased sampling of properties impartially.” According to a statement this week attributed to deputy city treasurer Joseph Muhuni, properties “may be selected for an audit using randomized selection.” So (maybe), a map of Ottawa and 1,525 darts?

If the purpose is to actually find empty homes that the owners claim are occupied, the city would have greater success by adopting Veitch’s suggestion to drive around and knock on some doors.

In the end, in Veitch’s case, the city relented after a few emails and phone calls. Now it should relent with the other 1,524 homeowners on its list, and find a better way to do this.

Born in Fort William, Ont., a city that no longer appears on maps, Bruce Deachman has called Ottawa home for most of his life. As a columnist and reporter with the Citizen, he works at keeping Ottawa on the map. You can reach him at [email protected].

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