vacant stores toronto

Toronto might start taxing landlords for having vacant storefronts

Longstanding local businesses continue to close at a clip along Toronto's busiest retail strips thanks to skyrocketing commercial rent prices, leaving in their wake a wasteland of papered-up "units for lease."

Sometimes, these vacant storefronts are turned into drug stores or condo sales centres. Many have have been taken over by international bubble tea, ramen or chicken chains.

In the case of West Queen West, vacant stores are most likely to become luxury optical boutiques... if they ever rent out to anyone after closing, that is.

All along Queen Street, from east to west, "for lease" signs can be spotted against the front windows of former stores and restaurants with staggering frequency.

It's not that business owners aren't dying to rent out these prime units, with their ample foot traffic and hip-as-hell locations — it's that they simply can't afford to pay what landlords are asking.

I mean, you know rent has gotten ridiculous when not even The Gap or Taco Bell can afford to stick around.

Maybe I'm bitter about the closures of Morba, Tequila Bookworm and TSOQ — all neighbourhood institutions that simply can't and won't ever be replicated. Places with decades of history and massive, loyal customer bases.

Maybe I'm shocked to see places that have been around since my childhood, like Active Surplusthe Condom Shack and Queen Video bite the dust.

Maybe I'm mad about La Hacienda, Brooklyn, BMV Books, The Hideout, Coupe Bizzare, Arepa Cafe, Design Exchange, Hayley Elsaesser, Harlem Underground, Tattoo, HOSU or any of the other dozens, if not hundreds of succesful businesses that have been crushed in recent years on Queen Street alone by insurmountable rent hikes.

Whatever the case, I'm happy the city is finally looking at doing something to curb the greed of building owners who just can't get enough cash.

Ward 19 councillor Brad Bradford succesfully pushed through a motion at City Hall last week that will see the city's chief financial officer and treasurer report on "the feasibility of implementing a vacant storefront tax" ahead of 2021's budget launch.

The report will look at, among other things, "the potential for a vacant storefront tax to reduce storefront vacancies on retail main streets in the City of Toronto" and "policy options for a vacant storefront tax."

Should such a tax policy be drafted up and come into effect, building owners with vacant storefronts would steadily begin losing money to the city.

Different factors would determine how much each landlord has to pay, such as how long a storefront has been vacant (I'm looking at you, former appliance store at Queen and Niagara with the James Dean cut-out in your window.)

"Toronto faces a unique challenge where our City's growth and buoyant real estate market sometimes creates a perverse incentive to keep a store vacant rather than renting it out to the people willing to invest in our communities," reads Bradford's motion.

"We have to create the right tax policies to incentivize landlords to make retail space available for independent businesses at an affordable rate," the motion, which passed 17-5 continues.

"Keeping retail vacant for land speculation should not be an option."

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