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Luxury houses and apartments with multi-million dollar price tags tower over Sydney Harbour. The Australian government has imposed new restrictions on foreign ownership to counter soaring real estate prices. (WILL BURGESS/REUTERS)
Luxury houses and apartments with multi-million dollar price tags tower over Sydney Harbour. The Australian government has imposed new restrictions on foreign ownership to counter soaring real estate prices. (WILL BURGESS/REUTERS)

Is Australia's crackdown on foreign real estate ownership a model for B.C.? Add to ...

Dozens of news stories about housing costs soaring out of reach for many. Anger about the Asian-buyer factor. An uproar over housing left to sit empty. Frustration with government for not doing more to control foreign investment in residential real estate.

Vancouver?

No – Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.

In Vancouver, sales reports show property prices rose substantially during the hot spring selling season this year, and some experts have suggested measures taken in Australia to deal with the issues are examples for Canada and British Columbia.

In Australia, the state collects information on what properties foreign investors have acquired and publishes annual reports.

It also limits what those investors can buy in residential real estate, restricting them to newly built houses and apartments.

Recently, the government announced it would increase fines on anyone found breaking that law, and is forcing one Chinese billionaire to sell a luxury property.

But that has not calmed the debate in Australia. In fact, at least one expert questions whether the measures have papered over the real problem.

“I would posit that the reason why Australia’s housing has boomed is because of debt-financed speculation,” said Philip Soos, co-author of an 810-page book called Bubble Economics, published by the World Economics Association last year.

“It is always the perception here that it is the Yellow Peril [driving up housing prices]. But it’s mostly domestic investment that is to blame.”

Mr. Soos, an economist at Deakin University in Melbourne, said Australia’s housing-price climb started 15 years ago – long before China’s middle class emerged and started trying to invest globally – and it has become an unsustainable bubble.

His research showed that Australia now has the third-highest ratio in the world of household debt to gross domestic product, at 115 per cent. (Canada is down the list, at 92 per cent.)

That ratio is a sign that people are taking on mortgage debt far in excess of what the local economy would normally sustain.

Mr. Soos said that has been the result of state policies encouraging speculation in housing, which has inflated prices far beyond what relatively small outposts such as Sydney and Melbourne warrant.

Australian citizens, like Canadians, do not have to pay capital gains when they sell a personal residence, no matter how much it appreciated in value.

They also get to keep 50 per cent of the capital gains in an investment property. And they can write off operating losses on investment properties against their salaries.

As a result, Mr. Soos said, “our secular religion is property investment. It’s seen as the pathway to riches and early retirement. These policies have created an army of mum and dad investors.”

Mr. Soos said the real estate, finance and insurance industries are all profiting wildly by this speculative market – far more than the people in the middle – so they press governments not to tamper with any of those tax breaks.

Many people do not even bother renting out their investment properties because they expect to make their gains on rising prices. Mr. Soos did a study of water use in Melbourne and found that 60,000 homes did not use any water for a whole year.

But he said that was not primarily driven by foreign investors.

Mr. Soos said a recent Credit Suisse analysis indicated foreigners buy only about 15 per cent of the new homes.

Another academic who has specialized in housing concurs.

“It’s domestic investment that has pushed housing prices up,” said Dallas Rogers, an urban-studies specialist at the University of Western Sydney. And, he added, while Chinese money is definitely coming into the Australian market, it is not in any larger quantities than the U.S. and British money that used to be invested.

As well, he argues in public opinion pieces that the amount of foreign investment, even though it is rising, is still a tiny fraction of the investment pie in the country.

He has joined the public fray recently by calling for the Australian government to stop focusing on race issues and develop housing policy that encourages both domestic and offshore investors to put their money into new housing developments that are affordable.

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