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A real estate sign reading "Sold Over Asking" stands on display outside a townhouse in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg)
A real estate sign reading "Sold Over Asking" stands on display outside a townhouse in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg)

Globe editorial

Globe editorial: B.C. Liberals are buying votes with free money to buy houses. Good politics, bad economics Add to ...

Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia is giving a seasonal gift to her voters. The B.C. Home Owner Mortgage and Equity Partnership program, announced Thursday, involves giving free money to first-time home buyers. It reveals a residual streak of populism in the provincial Liberal Party, which after all has a Social Credit element in its complex pedigree.

Also: There is a provincial election in May.

While the federal government is trying to cool down the housing market, especially in the Lower Mainland of B.C., the B.C. government is tempting first-time buyers with a promise of down-payment loans, interest-free for five years, so as to further warm up that very same real-estate market. The impulse is politics. Did we mention there’s an election in May?

“Owning the place where you live is part of what being a Canadian is all about,” Ms. Clark says. The risk of a real-estate market overheating, however, is not. Her paradoxical way of resolving this tension is by saying she doubts this new interest-free loan program will generate much demand, or not enough at any rate to drive up housing prices much.

“People need a partner in scraping together that first down payment,” the Premier added. Yes, a parent, a bank, a credit union, personal savings – not the friendly Treasury of British Columbia, courtesy of Finance Minister Mike De Jong.

If a first home-buyer can scrape together up to $37,500, B.C. will offer them an equal amount as taxpayer-subsidized loan, to be used for the down payment on a house or a condo. The home has to be occupied by the owner. Flipping is forbidden.

Then again, the free money is only available to first-time buyers of properties worth less than $750,000. That’s considerably less than the going rates for houses in the Greater Vancouver region, but it covers a lot of entry-level condos. Elsewhere in the province, where prices are lower, the number of people able to access the program may not be so small.

Either way, what Ms. Clark’s government is proposing is to use taxpayer money to subsidize first-time home buyers, and in a way that will likely push up prices at the lower end of the market. We get the politics. The economics, not so much.

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