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stephen quinn

As Finance Minister Mike de Jong released some preliminary figures this week on foreign investment in British Columbia's real-estate market, it was apparent what headline he was looking for.

Recent data, he said, indicated that a scant 3 per cent of deals across the province involved foreign buyers.

Three per cent? Yawn. No story here. Thanks for coming out.

In fact, the majority of the news release that followed Mr. de Jong's presentation of the findings, such as they were, wasn't about foreign investment at all. It was about the history of resale activity, the number of new housing units in development (despite those red-tape-loving municipal laggards dragging their feet through the development process) and how much money the province has saved buyers of new homes by giving them a break on the property transfer tax.

But break out the numbers for Metro Vancouver and that 3-per-cent figure for foreign buyers jumps to more than 5 per cent.

And look at actual dollars and you'll see that, over a 20-day period, foreign buyers snatched up $351-million worth of Lower Mainland property accounting for 6.5 per cent of the market. If properties sold at the same rate for an entire year, foreign buyers would have purchased $6.4-billion worth of Metro Vancouver.

Mr. de Jong also pointed out that 68 per cent of transactions were for properties valued at less than a million dollars – 34 per cent for homes valued under $500,000 and 34 per cent for properties valued between $500,000 and $1-million. So clearly, there are deals to be had out there – as long as you don't need food or clothing.

Twenty-seven per cent of transactions were for properties valued between $1-million and $3-million, with another 5 per cent falling into the $3-million-plus category.

While it may be to Mr. de Jong's advantage to play down the findings, he admitted that foreign buyers were having an impact. "There's certainly a presence. It is actual, it is factual and it is beyond conjecture."

But he said people need to be careful about drawing conclusions based on such a short period of time. The data were gathered June 10-29. Mr. de Jong has said the government would need to collect data for six months to a year before being able to establish any kind of pattern.

Which begs the question: Why release the numbers at all unless they somehow serve your narrative?

It took critics about 15 seconds to accuse the government of burying its head in the sand.

The Premier, after all, has said she doesn't want to do anything to reduce the equity of lucky homeowners who have seen the value of their homes soaring in recent years. Using tax levers to cool the market appears to be a non-starter for her government – Mr. de Jong has said as much.

NDP housing critic David Eby called the numbers "relatively meaningless" and said that using self-reported citizenship data doesn't tell us much about who is buying property.

"I think the activity we should be tracking is not a person's citizenship but their participation in our economy. Are they working here? Are they paying taxes here? Are they part of our community? And if so, great. And if they're not paying taxes here, why don't we get rid of the profit motive for buying property here?" he said in an interview.

On the issue of whether municipalities could do more to increase housing supply more quickly, Mr. Eby calls it "classic B.C. Liberal politics."

"Deny and counterattack. There have never been so many housing units under construction, and yet housing affordability is at its lowest point. So when you put those two things together you can say, absolutely, we need to talk about supply. But supply without talking about the fact that we have people on a significant scale buying property as investments – not otherwise participating in the economy? I think we have to deal with that," he said.

What we end up with is an issue mired in politics on both ends. The opposition is demanding action the government has already rejected but is sending a clear message to its supporters, especially young people, that the NDP is looking out for them. On the other side is a government reluctant to upset the status quo, which arguably benefits their constituents and maintains the flow of offshore money and the property transfer tax that comes along with it.

It's nice to know that even fundamental human needs such as shelter aren't above politics.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.