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Opinion: Is Kelowna Media Manufacturing Consent Against the Spec Tax?

Chantal Weill | March 11, 2018
Opinion: Is Kelowna Media Manufacturing Consent Against the Spec Tax?
My morning coffee ritual this week was greeted with tweets, links, and posts from local media claiming that Kelowna is against the new spec tax.
My morning coffee ritual this week was greeted with tweets, links, and posts from local media claiming that Kelowna is against the new spec tax.

As this week progressed, our local media continually updated us on the city's position on the proposed new speculation tax. Heck even Vancouverites and the #bcpoli twitterverse were paying attention. Wow, I thought, is our quiet body politic, the one that just turned out pretty low numbers for a recent by-election finally getting woke?

All down my feeds, people are taking a stand, they demand to be heard, they're outraged at unfairness, they're taking an eye off the US clown show for a minute and are paying attention to issues in their own back yard for a change. Is this the awakening of a generation of millennials unable to afford to live where they work? Is this the outcry of young families forced to leave town unable to secure housing? Is this the entrepreneurial tech sector trying, but unable to attract long term talent?

No it is not.

It is the collective roar of the real estate development industry and their bidders circling the wagons, and the stand being taken is, to quote one local outlet, that "Central Okanagan builds a united front against speculation tax" (Kelowna Capital News).

No doubt non-residents and some local homeowners don't mind the escalated home prices and are upset with this 2% speculation tax proposition, and I can discuss why the fundamental reasoning behind the tax is sound and well-intentioned (although the explanation and rollout is lacking in detail), in another article. But right now I want to talk about why, as I began my weekend morning ritual coffee reading, every single tweet, link, and post from the Courier, Cap News, Kelowna Now, and Castanet, along with the City of Kelowna and numerous real estate accounts claim that Kelowna is against the tax – a tax that aims to make housing affordable here, and a tax move that a large number of BCers strongly support).

Surely they could have found a Kelowna citizen in favour of the anti speculation move. There certainly were plenty in the comments and mentions.

Certainly in their attempts to appear objective and reflect two sides of a story, they could have countered the pro-development side with a housing advocate who was not also a member of city council, one who voted for the Westcorp hotel plans over city planners objections.

Perhaps they could have talked to an Albertan property owner who is able to recoup the tax easily by renting out their 900 square foot condo for $7,500 a month during high season, as my neighbour did last summer.

Surely they could have talked about what this could do to lessen downtown Kelowna's 25% vacant/secondary residences, or how it could lead to more year-round businesses, and more diverse and interesting businesses that cater to a wider culture than mainly tourism. Or how about talking to someone from the tech industry about how this tax can attract the hyped "creative class", or more broadly working families, and all those disappearing bright UBCO grads too.

Certainly, all the talk of real estate developers creating building jobs here could have also included a discussion of who the end market for their projects are aimed at? Are they aimed at more part-timers as the Westcorp condo/hotel indicates with its fancy night time illumination that will "ensure that the building looks warm regardless of time of year or occupancy level"?

Instead, according to the local media, this is what "Kelowna" is feeling:

  • We are united against the tax (Kelowna Chamber of Commerce via Kelowna Capital News)
  • Thousands sign petition to stop BC’s speculation tax (Kelowna Now)
  • Proposed speculation tax will be an economic disaster (Melton Family of Melcor via Kelowna Now's column, "Your Voice")
  • Speculation tax 'disastrous' for Kelowna, mayor says (Daily Courier – I have yet to find where Mayor Basran actually says this. It was originally used in scare quotes in a CBC article when the news first broke, but was not contextually attributed)
  • Kelowna builders propose a 'true' speculation tax (while alternatives are always welcome in these discussions, this one comes straight from the industry body Urban Development Institute, and as it reads in the Daily Courier article, it does not address the controversial contract assignments behind presale shadow flipping)
  • Myopic speculation tax could bring down more than house prices (Kelowna Capital News)
  • A CBC morning radio show's airtime is more invested in what Penticton opposition MLA Dan Ashton says about how the tax will hurt the trades in Penticton and the Okanagan, than Penticton's Mayor Andrew Jakubeit requests for the anti-speculation protection to extend and cover his city.
  • Proposed speculation tax is raising the ire of Albertan vacation property owners (Kelowna Now's column, "Your Voice" – this article has a picture included of the complex I live in full of happy tourists nearby, meanwhile the complex itself sits mostly unoccupied outside of the summer season - pic below).

Left: summer at Tugboat Bay, credit: Kelowna Now. Right: condo complex overlooking Tugboat Bay on a typical winter night this March. I count 20 units lit during prime hours.

While there is a lot of fuzziness and a glaring lack of detail in the budget proclamation about how the tax will work on the ground, the BC government's intention is clear. Provincial Finance Minister Carole James has stated from the outset that in general those who occupy their home, rent out the home, or pay income taxes in BC will be exempt from the speculation tax (via The Vancouver Sun). So is it safe to assume that claims counter to this intention are purposely exploiting this momentary lack of detail to fill it in with their preferred agenda?

Recently, I along with a packed Kelowna Community Theatre of local residents, attended a lecture by esteemed Canadian journalist Chantal Hebert about the state of journalism in Canada. Billed as a talk about fake news, she revealed that the fake news that is most dangerous is the multitude of views that the media decides not to talk about. The media are out of touch with the regular folk, she says, they live in a bubble, are colleagues with the very people they cover, and more often than not, engage in group think. And while group think is what my twitter feed looked like today, with everyone repeating the "disastrous" effects for Kelowna's economy line, I think there's a little more than work culture at play here.

Either the media is uncritically regurgitating the real estate development industry's press releases, or they are actively carrying their water. They rely on their ad revenue (and in Kelowna Now's case, clients), as well as their amicable relationship with a council who has historically seen mostly all development as favourable. In the case of the Daily Courier and Kelowna Capital News, their ownership isn't terribly local: being more in the business of cutting local staff rather than listening to it, and considering they're owned by Toronto-based monopoly media companies Hollinger and Torstar respectively, they're not exactly a voice of the people. What the media is not doing is looking for a range of opinion on affordable housing, and the newly elected provincial government's recent attempts to work towards it.

For years the working class have been told to suck up the "sunshine tax" in order to live and work here, so it is ironic that when a similar tax is suggested for those who want to contribute to the economy on a less than full time basis, Kelowna suddenly has a "unified" resistance on its hands.

I understand that tensions are provoked by the tax. Those who have been comfortable with the status quo are now confronted with a housing market reality that does not ensure that the housing needs of most of its residents can be met. We have heard from those who have access to the public relations machinery, now how about those who have been promised a future here, those who want to commit to the city on a full time basis, those who live here and are not hearing their concerns voiced? This is a wide discussion that our city deserves.

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