Downtown Eastside landlords notorious for owning troubled SRO hotels may be the next commercial land owners in Vancouver to get a whopping tax break by designating property as a community garden.
The Sahota family who own the Astoria Hotel on East Hastings Street through a company (Yang-Myung Holdings Ltd.) are benefiting from a program that allows commercial properties to be re-classified as a public park or garden. The so-called “Class 8” property classification permits owners of commercial property to pay one-fifth of their normal tax bill.
Tax breaks totaling in the millions of dollars have been given to developers and commercial property owners during a year where the City of Vancouver is facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall, is reducing staff positions and closing city facilities as a result.
The Sahotas were approached about using their property by a community organization named Greening the Inner-City looking to create an “urban farm” to train up to a dozen area citizens as food gardeners.
Empty lots beside the Astoria Hotel (769 East Hastings) to Hawks Avenue have an assessed value of $8.3 million. The normal tax bill would be approximately $165,000. As a Class 8 property the tax bill could be reduced to as low as $33,000, providing an annual savings of $132,000.
The Astoria Hotel has been the centre of several complaints by tenants over the years. Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson has referred to the Sahotas as “slumlords,” and some have said they're the "worst" in the city.
The BC Assessment Authority (BCAA) is an independent government body that decides property values throughout the province. Cities must tax properties based upon their assessment.
Deputy Assessor Grant McDonald says that there is an “element of subjectivity” in the rulings of BCAA. “Once the garden is set up we need evidence that the community group is in there working the garden,” says McDonald. “We’ll be back next summer to confirm this.”
Asked whether the City of Vancouver is disputing any of BCAA’s rulings, McDonald would only say that he’s “had conversations” with City staff on the matter. The BCAA will announce their ruling on the Sahota property on December 4th.
City staff have the option to recommend that the several development sites and commercial properties are not suitable locations for community gardens, leaving the final decision to axe or move the gardens to city council. Sources say no plan is pending to review community gardens on commercial land by the City.
The City of Vancouver has asked community groups to use vacant public lots for their gardens, and many are still available for applicants. It is hard to imagine that Mayor Gregor Robertson, whose own showy community garden project practically defines his first year in office, would even consider removing one of these expensive vegetable patches.
Vancouver Courier columnist Allen Garr has done great work on this subject earlier in the year. What makes the Sahota property precedent-setting is that the land is not currently slated for development. In the case of one of the lots, a parking lot for the Astoria Hotel was turned into a garden, leaving Hotel staff to park on the street.
Wood for the community gardens was provided by Rona, who probably will not get the kind of property tax break these landowners are getting for their generosity.
Check out our new online poll on this subject and let us know what you think.