Posted on August 19, 2016

Foreigner Property Tax Unlikely To Improve Housing Affordability

There has been much hand-wringing about the overheated housing markets in Vancouver and Toronto. Accelerating price gains in the past year are indicative of a buying frenzy, especially in Vancouver, which is clearly unsustainable. New listings are way down, new supply is constrained, and buyer euphoria seems to be suggestive of panic fear of missing out — all of which has made housing less affordable and far out of reach of most middle-class households.

Housing affordability is a hot-button political issue, so it is not surprising that the B.C. government, facing an election in less than a year, has felt compelled to do something to dampen the fervor. Time will tell how impactful the new tax will be, but one thing is certain: Housing in Metro Vancouver will remain unaffordable for most households.

RBC estimates that owning a single-detached home in the Vancouver area would require 120 per cent of a typical household’s income. In other words, unless the buyers have access to a huge downpayment (thanks, let’s say, to Mom and Dad), it is out of reach. Even condos are too expensive for average earners in Vancouver.

In the Toronto area, owning a single-detached home is also a stretch — eating up roughly 72 per cent of typical household income — but condo ownership is still reasonably viable for many, requiring about 37 per cent of average household income.

But this is really no different than many other global cities. Average earners typically can’t afford to buy a home in San Francisco, New York, London or Sydney, and there is nothing government can do to change this. Scandinavian and some other European governments built subsidized housing in metro areas, but it is doubtful that Canadians are willing to pay the kind of taxes that would require. Besides, land shortages in Vancouver and Toronto are part of the problem.

Increasing housing supply through changes in land use restrictions might help at the margin, but density and greenspace markedly impact the quality of life. Public transportation pressures are already endemic to Vancouver and Toronto and densification along major public transit routes is already underway.

As we have seen, it is politically enticing to blame the affordability problem on foreigners. They don’t vote in Canada, so they are easier to tax. Other countries have done it. For example, the U.K., Hong Kong and New Zealand have imposed capital gains taxes on foreign-owned properties that are not a primary residence. Australia has limited foreign purchases to newly constructed or renovated homes, and Switzerland sets quotas for personal-use only purchases.

Canada could also impose a tax on property flipping by foreigners (or anyone else) — say a capital gains tax on properties sold within two years of purchase. Or we could penalize foreign owners of vacant properties that are not properly maintained.

The fact is, as other countries have seen, this might take some of the steam out of the markets, but it will not make housing affordable for average earners in Vancouver. It just won’t.

Notably, there are early signs that the red-hot markets are cooling, at least a bit. Resales have slowed in the past few months, and housing starts have picked up. Boomers are downsizing and much more of that will come over the next decade. I believe house price inflation will slow in the next year, which should encourage many who are thinking of selling to put their properties on the market. So while housing in Vancouver and Toronto will remain expensive, the pace of appreciation is likely to slow.

Will prices fall enough to make them affordable? No. Even if prices fell 30 per cent, it would simply take them back to where they were a year or so ago. Over-extended first-time homeowners would continue to make their payments as long as they don’t lose their jobs, because Canadians don’t walk away from their homes.