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You Wanted Foreign Ownership Data? Here You Go

Housing agency report doesn't answer everyone's questions, but is 'meaningful first step.'

David P Ball 9 Apr 2016Tyee Solutions Society

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

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It's been nine months since Eveline Xia took the microphone outside Vancouver's downtown library, riling up a crowd that waved unusual placards emblazoned with, "Give Us Data." The slogan was a Twitter hashtag she'd started as a sequel to her more famous catchphrase, #DontHave1Million.

Specifically, her plea was for governments to release whatever statistics they have on how many foreign buyers are snapping up properties in Vancouver's real estate market and the extent to which that plays a role in booming home prices.

Now Canada's federal housing agency has released what it admits is just one ''first step towards filling this data gap,'' albeit a ''meaningful'' one -- how many condominiums of various ages were bought by foreign owners.

In Vancouver's superheated real estate market, foreign buyers concentrated their purchases on newer condos built after 2010, making up six per cent of all owners in that group in 2015, according to a report released on Thursday by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). That compares with Vancouver's overall rate of just 3.5 per cent foreign ownership in the condo market -- roughly the same as Toronto's rate.

Although CMHC said the share of foreign ownership in both major cities ''showed a statistically significant increase'' from 2014 to 2015, the data throws some cold water on theories that offshore investment is the main cause of skyrocketing prices in Metro Vancouver.

But the agency cautioned that its Vancouver numbers were much less reliable than those for other Canadian cities, adding a "use with caution" disclaimer to its estimates.

In fact, the agency concedes that even national numbers are far from perfect.

"The general perception is that foreign buyers are key players whose actions could have significant implications for Canadian housing markets," the report states. "Despite a range of statistics suggested by various studies on the size of foreign ownership, available factual information remains scarce."

Devil's in the details

"It's a beginning, but definitely doesn't give many answers," commented Andy Yan, senior urban planner at Bing Thom Architect and director of Simon Fraser University's City Program, in a phone interview Friday after the data came out.

"There's so many limitations on what CMHC studied,'' Yan said. For one thing, the study left itself "severely limited" by focusing only on condominiums with CMHC mortgage insurance, relying on survey results, and by poorly defining who counts as ''foreign.''

The agency's definition was an owner whose permanent residence is outside the country, which might include Canadian citizens living abroad -- but overlook speculative investors from other cities.

"The devil's in the details," Yan quipped.

University of B.C. geographer David Ley, speaking before the CHMC report was released, delivered a similar message, cautioning that "data is certainly not the be-all and end-all" of solving Vancouver's housing affordability problem.

''We're going to have to be quite sophisticated with this data,'' Ley said, ''because investors have found ways to make capital seem local. While ultimately it is offshore capital, it is very hard to trace. There may be a smaller share of foreign buyers who show up than we anticipate'' in data like the CMHC has now published, he cautioned, ''because it only identifies the buyers, not the source of the capital."

Vows to act and calls for more

The new CMHC numbers also don't account for the recently revealled use of so-called ''assignment clauses'' in real-estate contracts, which allow a property to change hands multiple times before it's sold for good, without leaving a record along the way.

The B.C. government has vowed to investigate and crack down on profits made from such manoeuvres. In this spring's provincial budget, Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced the government would begin to require real estate buyers to declare whether they are a permanent resident or citizen of Canada. The opposition New Democrats say that won't go far enough to close a legal loophole that is jacking up Lower Mainland house prices.

The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (FinTRAC), Canada's federal anti-money laundering agency, has expressed concern that money flowing into Vancouver's hot real-estate market could be masking illegal transactions.

But still others, including Vancouver's mayor and B.C.'s minister responsible for housing, have suggested that pointing the finger at foreign ownership at all may be fuelling racism against Chinese immigrants.

Xia earned cheers from the crowd At Vancouver's #GiveUsData rally last June for demanding that all three levels of government start working together to collect information and act on it. But as for solutions, she was more circumspect.

"Unfortunately, there will be no magic solution to the housing crisis," she said at the time. "I wish I could tell you otherwise." The experts parsing CMHC's new information would heartily agree.  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing

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