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Markham has not seen a lot of new subdivisions built recently because of intensification goals.


As long as the Toronto area's real estate market remains an inferno, discussions about imposing a tax on foreign buyers seem to erupt.

For their part, many industry players are trying to stamp out those sparks as quickly as they flare up.

This week, Markham City Council voted down a motion calling on the provincial government to introduce a foreign buyers' tax.

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Related: Four charts that explain the impact of the Vancouver-region's foreign buyer tax

Explainer: Real estate reform in B.C.: Everything you need to know

Investigation: Foreign investors avoid taxes through Canadian real estate

Mayor Frank Scarpitti was one of those who voted against the motion, which was rejected eight to four after a debate that lasted through 12 delegations and approximately three hours.

Mr. Scarpitti says residents at a recent ratepayers' group meeting expressed concern foreign buyers are purchasing properties and leaving them vacant, but Mr. Scarpitti believes there are no more than a few empty houses scattered across Markham.

"If there are five to 10 houses empty on a street, show me where that street is," Mr. Scarpitti challenged the group. "I haven't seen that scenario."

Nobody has taken him up on it, he adds.

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Many market watchers have been keeping an eye on the Vancouver experience.

In August, the B.C. government implemented a 15-per-cent tax on foreign buyers of properties in Metro Vancouver. The market there had started cooling earlier in 2016; since the tax came into effect, sales have tumbled.

But even before the tax, overseas investors had been tilting their purchases toward Toronto as Vancouver prices reached dizzying heights.

The latest numbers from the Teranet-National Bank home-price index show Greater Toronto Area prices jumped 20.9 per cent in January compared with the same period in 2016.

The Toronto Real Estate Board and the Ontario Real Estate Association have quickly tried to extinguish any notion of a foreign buyers' tax in Ontario.

Once the motion was placed on the agenda for this week's gathering of Markham City Council, the two associations released a joint open letter to Mr. Scarpitti, urging Markham to abandon the idea.

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"I was happy to see the motion in Markham go down solidly," Tim Hudak, chief executive officer of the OREA, said in an interview following the vote.

Mr. Hudak says the overwhelming majority of home buyers from foreign countries are not speculators – they are immigrants looking to buy a family home. The former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party adds that they are essential to the province's economic success. He calls the tax proposed in the motion discriminatory.

"Scapegoating foreigners as the reason for increasing home prices is not based on sound public policy or reliable data. It's based in the cheap politics of division."

The OREA and the TREB would rather see the government study how to increase the number of houses available in hot markets such as Toronto.

"The core issue is about supply," Mr. Hudak says.

The TREB recently released the results of a survey of its members that showed only 4.9 per cent of transactions last year involved foreign buyers. Anecdotally, however, some agents suggest the numbers are higher. Some busy agents in key Toronto markets estimate that seven out of 10 bidders who come to the table are overseas investors or their representatives.

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In December, the City of Toronto passed a motion asking city staff to consult with the province about the potential impacts of levying an additional land-transfer tax on the sale of houses to non-Canadian residents. The OREA points out the motion was simply a request to review and report back on the implications of such a tax.

In Markham, the motion put forward by Councillor Karen Rea asked council to put a request to the provincial government to implement a foreign buyers' tax similar to the one imposed in Metro Vancouver.

Ms. Rea cites the difficulty young residents face in buying a house when prices have risen so dramatically in the past couple of years. She also points to the "red warning" issued by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. about overvaluation in some Canadian cities.

Mr. Scarpitti acknowledges the pressure on prices in Markham has made it hard for young people and families to get into the market. Not a lot of new subdivisions have been built because of intensification goals and the onerous approvals process for development, he adds.

Those factors have led more buyers to tear down small, older houses and replace them with large ones in established subdivisions.

"It creates tension," he says between some long-term residents and new ones.

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Mr. Scarpitti says Markham is rapidly growing and the city is "a poster child when it comes to intensification.

"We're not afraid of density."

But he would like to see improved infrastructure and an easier process for getting new neighbourhoods approved.

He adds that a foreign buyers' tax or any other measure may cool the market too much and there are older homeowners counting on the sale of their property for a retirement nest egg.

"There would be people at the cusp of retiring who would say 'Don't tinker with anything.'"

Capital Economics economist David Madani says the abrupt slowdown in Vancouver's housing market serves as a warning shot. He thinks the new provincial foreign buyers' tax there has little to do with the slump in sales, which have plummeted 44 per cent from their peak in February, 2016.

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He points out there has been no macroeconomic trigger for the downturn in sales in Vancouver.

"We simply think the housing bubble has burst," Mr. Madani says. "Housing bubbles are, of course, inherently unstable because they are largely driven by unpredictable investor mania."

Mr. Madani worries the health of the Canadian economy now relies heavily on the continued strength of the Toronto market.

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