Earlier this year in a “blink and you might miss it” moment, a plywood billboard was erected in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park inscribed with two bold proclamations: “Gentrification Tax” was the opening shot, and “The real estate market is destroying this city” was the chaser.
“Obviously, everybody is talking about gentrification, everyone is dealing with it,” said Kika Thorne, a local artist and member of the small collective of artists and academics behind the Gentrification Tax billboard. The message was stark, but it comes from the member’s lived experience. “Toronto has always seemed very unaffordable to us, but incredibly it has seemed more unaffordable recently than it did 20 years ago,” said Adrian Blackwell, another member of the group and an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture.
The billboard suggested the rapid rise in home values between 2008 and 2017 necessitates a steep tax aimed at speculative flipping. The proposed tax would grab as much as 100 per cent of the profit from a home resale during the first year of ownership, then decline by increments of 10 per cent over 10 years. It would target non-resident and resident buyers alike, including primary residences.
The group admits the idea isn’t entirely original – in the 1970s Ontario had a similar tax for a few short years – but acknowledges that some will find it radical. But the group says it is not fixated on regulating who sells their house for how much; the goal is to keep Toronto’s popular neighbourhoods affordable for all income levels.
“It’s not just a tax, it’s a tax that needs to be directed to local communities,” said Mr. Blackwell, referring to the second part of the group’s proposal – that unlike taxes that flow into general revenues, all the funds raised by the gentrification tax should only be spent locally supporting non-governmental community co-ops aimed at affordable housing.
Although the word gentrification has many uses, the group’s interested in the version coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass, who used it to elevate middle-class Londoners into a new form of Britain’s landed “gentry” as she was describing an “invasion” of those middle-income professionals that were remaking London’s formerly working-class inner boroughs.
“If a neighbourhood is valuable because of the culture that’s produced there over time by a lot of people, when gentrification occurs, that money is still leaving that neighbourhood, and displacing the original producers of that place,” said Jane Hutton, another Waterloo architecture professor in the group. Also a member of the group is artist Sameer Farooq.
“We’ve been discussing and making work about these themes for 20 years,” Ms. Thorne said. The idea of the billboard came as the group pondered creating, “a physical and conceptual structure that attempts to move beyond art into law.“
The group’s second installation was even more explicitly about advocacy: a series of posters unveiled at the Public Gallery in June that further spelled out the case for slowing down the real estate market. They are designed to look like political campaign posters. “We don’t have a fully fledged campaign, but what if this was something that people could get behind?” Ms. Hutton asked.
The suggestion of a speculation tax comes as housing sits atop many political agendas. Toronto mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat’s first major policy plank was the announcement of a plan to build 100,000 affordable rental units over 10 years. Ontario’s former Liberal government had already acted to dampen an overheated real estate market and federal regulators have stiffened rules for mortgage lending, actions that appear to have helped cool things down.
In a June report titled Are Ontario Home Prices in a Corrective or Price Bust Phase?, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation predicted a mild price growth for GTA real estate into 2019, but also warned that speculators might need to temper dreams of a return to the wild markets of 18 months ago. “The current home price correction in Ontario will likely not persist as it fails to resemble the more serious downturns observed across time,” the report stated. But it also said: “for homeowners and investors, it means home price expectations will need to normalize.”
Recent reports on Toronto real estate do show some signs of price growth, although still far below the overheated markets of 2016. The Toronto Real Estate Board reported that average prices rose across all home types in July as sales rose 18.6 per cent compared with 2017 levels, but those numbers are less impressive when compared with the 40 per cent drop in sales experienced in July, 2017. Even if the average price increase of 4.8 per cent to $782,129 was the best rise since May, 2017, it pales in comparison with the wild rises of in July, 2016, which saw average prices rise 16.7 per cent and an all-time July record for monthly transactions (9,989).
Between 1974 and 1978, Ontario had a land speculation tax of 25 per cent on the profit on unimproved land. It was never a big money maker, raising about $9-million a year in revenue. It was introduced after home prices in Toronto soared 62 per cent between 1972 and 1974, and even its critics acknowledge it did damp down speculation: Between 1974 and 1976 prices only rose 16 per cent. “It not only stopped speculation in land, it also stopped speculation in housing," said Ross Cullingworth, senior vice-president for finance of Costain Estates Ltd. in a 1978 Globe and Mail story. "People, seeing houses increasing in price, were buying a second and a third and a fourth, and then selling them a few months later before their deals had even closed.”
Another speculation tax proposal later made its way into the 1990 election platform of Bob Rae, who won a surprise NDP majority government. Ultimately, that government decided not impose the tax, concluding that the proceeds would be minimal and it might further harm a real estate industry already in the throes of a recession.
The current gentrification tax group hopes to expand its campaign with new projects in the coming months. As for the original billboard? It’s in storage.
“We still have it, we’d like to show it again,” Ms. Thorne said.