That noise you hear is the sound of progressives panicking over Pierre Poilievre. It was all over Twitter this week, in the wake of the Conservative leadership candidate’s latest video production, in which he rants at length about the high cost of housing. Say what you will about him, liberal Twitter nervously told itself, but he’s onto something.
Is he? You’d think so, to judge from the federal budget, which was full of measures aimed at the high cost of housing: a ban on foreign non-resident buyers; a new tax-free First Time Home Savings Account; a doubling of the First-Time Home Buyers’ tax credit; a tax on “property flippers,” i.e. those who sell a home within 12 months of purchasing it; all backed by a pledge to somehow double the number of homes constructed over the next decade.
Whether any of these are likely to have much effect on prices is another matter. Foreign buyers, beloved scapegoats though they are, are a small part of the overall problem, as the past few years should have taught us. Governments in B.C. and Ontario imposed hefty taxes on non-resident buyers. Prices rose even faster than before.
The effect of the new savings accounts is likewise debatable (the $40,000 that can be saved within them is not enough for a down payment on a down payment in most Canadian cities). No one seems to have much idea how the government proposes to double construction – it seems to be more of an aspiration than anything else.
If that sounds overly cynical, it’s born of long experience. Governments have been unveiling one program after another to rein in housing prices for years, to little visible effect.
Possibly this is not entirely accidental. It tends to be forgotten in most reporting on the issue, but high and rising home prices have many more beneficiaries than victims: the two-thirds of Canadian households that own their own home, versus the fraction of the remainder that would prefer to own than rent.
If you think rising prices are a hot political issue, just wait until mortgage rates rise, prices start to fall, and over-leveraged homeowners find themselves under water. For the practising politician, then, the sweet spot is to be seen to be doing something to reduce house prices, without actually reducing them.
This is not necessarily irrational. Prices may have turned frothy in the past couple of years, but on the whole the social impact of high house prices has been greatly exaggerated. Millennials, in particular, are not the generational victims they have been made out to be, as a 2019 study (Economic Well-Being Across Generations of Young Canadians: Are Millennials Better or Worse Off?) by two Statistics Canada economists makes clear.
They found millennials, the generation now in their 30s, had one-third higher median incomes and a two-thirds higher median net worth (both in inflation-adjusted dollars) than Gen-Xers did at their age – who in turn were better off than the Baby Boomers were.
To be sure, millennials have taken on higher levels of debt than previous generations, but why shouldn’t they? They’re paying a fraction of the interest rates their parents did. Overall, millennials are as likely to own their own home (51 per cent) as Gen-Xers were at their age, and only slightly less (55 per cent) than the Baby Boomers were.
But all right. Suppose governments did want to cut house prices, rather than just talk about it. How would they go about it? One way is to reduce the demand for housing: that’s coming, with interest rates about to rise. The “flipper” tax offers another intriguing possibility: the precedent of taxing capital gains on principal residences having been set, the way is open to lengthen the minimum holding period.
But the most promising route, as every housing expert will tell you, is to boost the supply. There’s actually some common ground here between the government and Mr. Poilievre. The latter vows to get tough with municipalities that tie up development in red tape: “If they want more federal money, these big city politicians will need to approve more home building.”
That, stripped of the rhetoric, more or less seems to be the aim of the budget’s New Housing Accelerator Fund, which is to “incentivize” cities to get more housing built, including “up-front funding for investments in municipal housing planning and delivery processes.”
But what does this really mean? It’s one thing to tell cities to approve more housing construction, but where? When so much urban land is reserved exclusively for single-family homes, the possibilities are limited.
Here’s one way, then, to tell the contenders from the pretenders on this issue: Are they willing to push municipalities to allow more construction of multiunit homes in these neighbourhoods? Otherwise, it’s all talk.
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