Trimming Excessive Home Ownership Subsidies

While the cost of housing has prompted much debate, too little attention is on the heavy subsidies granted to residential real estate investment and the way in which these subsidies have caused price inflation.

Fortunately, the Government of Canada mortgage insurance program is being scaled back.  The restrictions introduced late in 2016 are ‘cooling the market’ according to the Globe and Mail.  Volumes are down 25-35%.  That is a good thing.  The flip side of the story is that mortgage insurance had been fanning the market for years.  The scale of the CMHC programs for insurance on mortgages, and guarantees on mortgage back securities, has distorted real estate markets.  Those programs effectively had transferred almost 2/3 of the credit risks in the real estate sector onto government.  The Canadian real estate mortgage market totals @$1,400B, CMHC insures and guarantees @$900B.

While those with a direct interest in the continued boom in this sector will argue that the CMHC retrenchment is ill considered, it is the best course for all Canadians.  The easy credit, at taxpayer expense, has induced too many into the market and introduced bidding wars; which has been good for sellers, brokers, and lenders.  But those living in major urban centres are being ‘priced out’.

Rather than simply ‘cooling’ and over-heated market, the real story may be larger.  We may need to re-appraise how the market is defined.

A book published last year does just that; What a City Is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement by Matt Hern asks some direct questions about the way in which the tax system works and our fascination with home ownership.  A recent piece in the Georgia Straight provides a great overview.  Hern looks at gentrification examples in different cities and the trends that erode shelter security for many, displacing whole communities.  He re-introduces the idea of land value taxation as proposed by American economist Henry George more than 100 years ago.  Hern notes that real estate has become a ‘safe investment’ that attracts many buyers whose capital might be alternatively employed in productive industries.  Thomas Piketty also observed the high concentration of RE investment over the last half century in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Land value taxes place the greater burden on the wealthy and have been introduced in several countries, such as Denmark and Singapore.

I am intrigued to see a resolution being proposed to the upcoming Union of BC Municipalities meeting (resolution B14) that seeks a BC legislative amendment that would enable municipalities to implement a very limited type of land value tax, which once was available to municipalities.

Indeed our capital gains tax system, and property tax regimes may be far more responsible for the high cost of housing than we care to admit.  Our waiving of capital gains taxes on a primary residence is too generous to the very wealthy, it should have a limit; just as there are limits on the size of mortgage loans that CMHC will insure, or how much a Canadian can put in an RRSP.  Our tax system induces over-investment in real estate.

The remedies may lead to price deflation, and that would cause many to call them radical.  But that may be what is required.  Some cities are in severe stress and cannot supply housing a reasonable cost for many kinds of workers, as reported in the New York Times.  Can we not sensibly remove the perverse subsidies?

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