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Vancouver proposes empty stores tax

When you buy commercial real estate, you are buying a stream of future cash flows. Sometimes these cash flows are already in place and sometimes these cash flows are based on future expectations. Either way, as a general rule, it is better to have more rather than less rent.

But there are some short-term exceptions to this rule. If there is a higher and better use for your property and you’re planning to redevelop it, you probably don’t want to encumber the asset with any leases. Certainly not with any long-term leases. So vacant is likely better.

Another possible short-term scenario might be that the market has moved and you’re no longer able to command the same rents. But instead of adjusting your expectations, which would negatively and immediately impact the value of your asset, you decide to hold out in the hopes that the market will return.

Yet another more dire scenario could be that the market has moved entirely and you’re no longer able to find tenants at any price. But this isn’t a choice and so I wouldn’t consider it an exception to our more-rent-is-better rule. This is a systemic kind of problem.

I am going to assume that for Vancouver to propose an empty stores tax the belief is that scenario two, or some permutation of it, is what is playing out on retail streets. It’s not that the tenants aren’t out there (because of changes in the retail landscape), it’s that landlords are greedy and want too much money.

But my view is that this proposal ignores (at least) two things.

One, you can’t punish and tax your way to vibrant urban streets, particularly if something structural is going on in the market. If this were the case, the way to revive a declining post-industrial city would just be to tax any vacant buildings.

And two, the fundamental value of commercial real estate is, again, determined by rents. So sooner or later the rule of more rent being better than less rent will take hold. Vacancies are not in anyone’s best interest.

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