If the Problem is Speculation, then Why Focus on Foreigners?

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m an immigrant to Canada. And from the US, which has recently seen a surge in anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric and mobilization. We saw the same, of course, in the UK leading up to Brexit, and there are outbreaks in many other places around the world as well. Anti-foreigner rhetoric is having its populist moment. And I don’t like it.

So I’m especially sensitive to anti-foreigner rhetoric. Combine that with my research interests in housing and immigration and my love for my adopted city of Vancouver, and well, you can probably see where this is going: I think we should stop our destructive focus on blaming “foreigners” for our housing problems.

This doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention to the impact of immigration policy and global flows of capital (and there are many good reasons to oppose wealth-based immigration policies like the investor program still operating out of Quebec!)* But it does mean we should stop using “foreigners” as our go-to explanation for sky-high housing prices.

Why? First, it’s dangerous. It should be patently obvious at this point that anti-foreigner rhetoric is the handmaiden to fascism. If I need to explain why that’s bad news, go visit some other blog. Second, it’s sloppy. The concept of “foreignness” is not well-defined in rhetoric, readily lends itself to racism, xenophobia and related “other”-blaming, and remains inconsistent with rhetoric when applied to policy. Let’s take Andrew Weaver’s recent foray into advocacy for a ban on foreign ownership as an example. He defends the ban this way: “We are delighted for people to come and work and live and own property in B.C. but it’s not okay for people to park capital here with no intention of living here.” I’m on-board with carefully tracking flows of capital, but does “foreignness” now apply to folks from Alberta and Ontario? And how do we square “foreignness” with the complexity of immigration? (I worked here on a visa for three years prior to becoming a permanent resident and then citizen, fully intending to live here all the while). Analyst Andy Yan offers a different, but related take for his focus on foreign-buying data: ““It comes down to a question of fairness. As people struggle with keeping their existing home or even having a home in Metro Vancouver, is it fair to treat them in the same way as someone who has a secondary or tertiary home here?” This is an entirely legitimate question, but it has little to do with foreignness, and everything to do with speculation and investment. To put the matter differently, if we’re trying to counter the possible negative effects of speculation and counteract wealth inequality, then I’m in, but if all we’re doing is coming up with policy responses to favor Canadian speculators over foreign speculators, then count me out.

And just what is the balance between “foreign” speculation and Canadian speculation? This is a tricky question to answer, in no small part because we DON’T track global capital very well. Like, at all… I’m all on-board at doing better with this – let a thousand Panama Papers blossom and the CRA take notice! But for now, instead of tracking capital, we track bodies and assign them to residence and rights of citizenship in complicated fashion. We have legislation in BC distinguishing “Foreigners” on the basis of PR and Citizenship status, regardless of their actual place of residence (our “foreign-buyer tax“). And now we have Andrew Weaver extolling the virtues of New Zealand’s proposed “foreign-buyer ban“, which is a little more complicated, but linked to assigned residency (e.g., temporary residents on visas can buy a home, but have to sell it when they leave). The latter issue of residency is what was kinda-sorta measured by Statistics Canada in its recent release of data on non-resident (“foreign”) property ownership (CHSP). This is the data Andy Yan’s been playing around with. But to date most write-ups of this data that I’ve seen, including that from Statistics Canada, have simply focused on the comparison between non-resident (outside Canada) and resident (in Canada) property owners. When we use this as a proxy for talking about speculation, the implicit assumption seems to be that everyone outside of Canada is a speculator/investor/vacation home owner, and everyone living in Canada owns only the property they live in. We lose sight of domestic speculation and investment. How do we fix this?

One answer is we combine this information with Statistics Canada’s Survey of Financial Security (SFS). This handy little survey differentiates between principal residence and other real estate for participants, including those in metropolitan Vancouver and Toronto. Here I’m going to combine these datasets together in a very simple and replicable fashion to divide up the value of residential real estate into principal residence, other Canadian residence, and cross-border (Non-Canadian) residence. Effectively I’m just taking the total value of resident real estate holdings from CHSP and subtracting the Principal Residence real estate holdings value estimated from SFS to get the Other Canadian Residence category. This enables us to compare domestic speculators/investors/vacation home owners with foreign speculators/investors/vacation home owners. So what does total property value look like broken down into Principal Residence, Other Canadian Residence (a.k.a. “domestic investors”), and Non-Canadian Residence (a.k.a. “foreign investors”)?

Something like this:

Res-RE-Holdings-Residency

Principal resident owners are separated out in purple, leaving only the properties held by investors / speculators / vacation home owners and the like in green. These are further distinguished between owners residing someplace else in Canada and owners residing someplace else across the border. In Toronto, these two groups are closely matched, though domestic investors look just a little more prominent than international investors and both are dwarfed by principal resident owners. In Vancouver, overall investment in the real estate market by non-owner occupiers is much, much larger, and domestic investors account for the lion’s share of the investment. Many of these investors, no doubt, live in Vancouver (where the SFS data estimate around 1 in 5 families own a second property besides their principal residence). Others live in Toronto, Calgary, and elsewhere across the country.  But with respect to Vancouver’s place in Canada the following seems clear: If speculation is the problem, then its largely home-grown.

There are some decent arguments out there for favoring the buyers in purple over the buyers in green. We’ve got lots of policy options for reducing the value of BC properties as investment vehicles – many having to do with tax policy. There are even better arguments, I think, for focusing on providing lots of affordable rental and non-market housing options for people so that ownership isn’t the only decent game in town. But what arguments do we see for favoring the folks in dark green over the folks in light green? If the important thing is to prop up the middle class in their entry into home ownership, why pit middle-class home ownership against foreigners instead of against the far broader class of investors and speculators as a whole? It’s for BC’s Green Party to answer that one, I guess…

 

*- I’m proud to have elicited the approval of at least one prominent academic I admire by ending my recent co-authored piece on Chinese-Canadian immigration with the line: “Investigations into the work of home-making suggest how Canada’s immigration policies contribute to rather than ameliorate global inequality, revealing an invitation that reads: give us your energetically leisured, your wealthy, your elites yearning to breathe freely.” Yes. We can do better, including taking in lots more refugees instead of fast-tracking “investor-class” immigrants!

NOTE: Inspired by the transparency of Jens von Bermann’s gitHub kits, but not knowing how to do that, please see my following spreadsheet if you’re interested in the data extracts I worked with and how I produced the above! Feel free to check my work and by all means let me know if I missed something!

ValueRE-SFS-CHSP-2016

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One thought on “If the Problem is Speculation, then Why Focus on Foreigners?

  1. Thanks Dr. Lauster! This is precisely what we need to think about and how we should be framing this conversation. One further thing we need to try to understand, in my opinion, is the demographic composition of the ‘domestic investor’ category. Not sure if the data allow for that, though.

    From Josh Gordon’s work, we have the trapline that suggests that we have a quasi-domestic category of player in the market – those in the so-called astronaut family category who would be categorized as domestic but come to the market with foreign capital and declare income elsewhere as well. This regulatory hurdle is another reason “foreign” buyers, as defined by passport/PR, is not really a particularly useful target in policy terms, as you point out.

    I suspect that there are many long-time “old stock” Canadians quietly executing this strategy (the Isle of Mann tax evasion scheme didn’t target those whose income was already easily declared offshore, after all).

    Like

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