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  • Betting on Bitumen: Alberta's energy policies from Lougheed to Klein June 8, 2017
    The role of government in Alberta, both involvement and funding, has been critical in ensuring that more than narrow corporate interests were served in the development of the province’s bitumen resources.  A new report contrasts the approaches taken by two former premiers during the industry’s early development and rapid expansion periods.  The Lougheed government invested […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Canada-China FTA will leave workers worse off June 2, 2017
    Global Affairs Canada is currently consulting Canadians on a possible Canada-China free trade agreement. In CCPA’s submission to this process, CCPA senior researcher Scott Sinclair argues that an FTA based on Canada’s standard template would almost certainly reinforce rather than improve upon Canada’s imbalanced and deleterious trade with China. It can also be expected to […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Faulty assumptions about pipelines and tidewater access May 30, 2017
    The federal and Alberta governments and the oil industry argue that pipelines to tidewater will unlock new markets where Canadian oil can command a better price than in the US, where the majority of Canadian oil is currently exported. Both governments have approved Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Expansion Project, but a new report finds that […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Weathering the storm: is this the end of CRA’s political activities audits? May 5, 2017
    Yesterday, following a panel’s recommendation to allow charities more freedom to speak out, the federal government decided to suspend the Canada Revenue Agency’s controversial political activities audit program. Indeed this is good news for Canadian charities. Everyone at the CCPA is proud of the role our organization has played in challenging these audits and in […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Unauthorized dams built in BC's northeast for energy companies' fracking May 3, 2017
    A subsidiary of Malaysian state-owned Petronas, the company behind a massive Liquefied Natural Gas plant proposal near Prince Rupert, has built at least 16 large unauthorized dams in northeast BC to trap water used for fracking operations, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has learned. Read the report.
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
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House price inflation and what to do about it

I have a new report out today on affordable housing in Metro Vancouver. While it’s mostly of regional interest, I think the analysis and framework for housing solutions could have a much wider audience. The report looks at what’s driving the spectacular rise in housing prices in Vancouver, summarizing what we know from a wide range of sources. It looks at the how rising prices have widened the growing gap between rich and poor. And it outlines five themes for a solutions agenda.

Here’s the oped length summary of key measures, including restricting absentee ownership, major new public investments in affordable housing stock, and a more progressive property tax system.

A Solutions Agenda for Vancouver’s Housing Market

Marc Lee

Metro Vancouver’s housing market is broken. While most of the attention has been on the soaring price of housing, there is also a crisis in the rental market, and the complete absence of any secure housing for the most needy. Together, these factors have fuelled a widening gap between rich and poor.

To address this crisis we must stop treating housing primarily as an investment rather than a place to live. Vancouver’s housing should be owned by the people of Vancouver, not absentee owners or corporations.

First, we need to take external capital out of the game. The ability of outside wealth whether Chinese, Russian, American or Albertan to come into the housing market is largely unquestioned. But when Vancouverites have to compete for housing with the world’s super-rich, locals cannot win.

In London’s even crazier real estate market, the UK government has acted to curb foreign money inflows by making its property transfer tax steeply progressive (topping out at 12% above $3 million), and adding a 3% transfer tax on purchases of second homes and rental properties.

BC’s property transfer tax could easily be amended along these lines to keep outside money at bay, and to address other ills of the real estate market like speculation. Over the longer term, though, we need to have a conversation about outright restrictions on absentee ownership.

In addition to cooling demand, we need to build public housing supply, lots of it. The development industry maximizes its profits when it can sell exclusive, luxury units to the top bidder. We need to revive the role of public enterprises to build the housing that local people need, not what investors want.

The tools for such public investment are already in place, from CMHC to BC Housing to regional/municipal housing agencies, not to mention potential partnerships with a wide array of non-profit housing providers.

We can start with an ambitious expansion of the rental housing stock, ideally with cooperative and social housing models. We need about 5,000 new units per year just to keep pace with demand. And more if want to address the housing backlog, from thousands of homeless people up to the estimated 145,000 households considered in “core housing need” (meaning they spend more than 30% of their gross income on housing).

In addition to rental, a building program should also explore innovative affordable ownership models, like community land trusts, where constraints on resale price serve to lock in affordability over the long term. Whistler also provides an excellent BC example of developing affordable ownership for local workers.

The challenge is how to fund the upfront costs of building new housing, typically about $250,000 per unit (800 square feet, mid-rise apartment). That means an annual investment of between $1.25 and $2.5 billion per year to build 5,000 to 10,000 units per year, less where land is contributed or development charges waived. That said, most of that upfront cost would get repaid over the lifetime of the building through rent.

To finance such as build out, and to make the tax system more fair, we should reform how we tax property. For example, a progressive property surtax kicking in at $1 million of assessed value would only affect the top one-third of homeowners, but would raise $1-2 billion per year.

Similarly, the windfall capital gains from housing price escalation should be subject to tax, just like income from working is or (to a lesser extent) income from selling stocks. A lifetime capital gains exemption of $500,000 could be included, with only gains above this amount taxed.

The surge in real estate prices has further increased the gap between rich and poor, with homeowners essentially winning the lottery. A portion of those winnings should be taxed to build the affordable housing we need.

It’s clear that we need a more rational management of housing in the interests of the people who live and work in the city. We have plenty of examples of success from our own history to actions taken in other jurisdictions. The real challenge is political will, and overcoming the powerful collection of vested interests in the housing market.

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