1 in 5 properties across much of Canada are owned by investors. That makes it harder for 1st-time buyers
Experts say recently-released data, which covers 5 provinces, has major implications for housing policy
Statistics Canada data shows that more than a fifth of all houses in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario were owned by investors in 2020.
It's the first time the Canadian Housing Statistics Program (CHSP) is publishing data related to housing investors, defined as homeowners that own at least one property that is not their primary residence.
The data shows that condominiums in particular — which constitute a majority of newly-built houses in B.C. and Ontario — are held by investors in high numbers. Over a third of all condos in B.C. are investor-owned, with the number jumping to 41.2 per cent in Ontario.
Experts say the figures raise questions about whom new houses are being built for, and how capital may be distorting the housing market across a country in the grips of an affordable housing crisis.
"What this dataset does is that it shows a competition to get on that [housing] ladder," said Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University's City Program.
"For Canadian public policy at the federal, provincial and local levels, who should have priority in trying to get on that ladder?
"Somebody … who is a first-time homeowner, who is a young or new Canadian, how do they fit in versus somebody who was wanting a residential piece of real estate as an investment?"
Yan says the data, collected at the end of a decade with significantly low interest rates, provides a useful snapshot of the housing market before the pandemic and subsequent rate hikes began to significantly take hold.
Data shows regional differences
The data released by the CHSP shows a variety of regional differences, which Yan describes as a "profound challenge" when it comes to designing national housing policies.
While Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had comparatively high levels of investor-owned properties, Statistics Canada says that's likely because of the large amount of vacant land in the Maritimes that is "often" owned by homeowners in addition to their primary home.
"If we remove this type of investor, the rate of investors falls to 24.8 per cent in Nova Scotia and 21.3 per cent in New Brunswick," the agency said.
"The proportions of investors are then more comparable to those of the other provinces."
B.C. has the highest rate of "investor occupants" which refers to someone who lives in a single property with multiple residential units — such as "mortgage helpers" or Vancouver specials.
"In that case, it has provided a stock of what is relatively well-sized affordable family rental, through which the market rental system isn't necessarily ready to provide," Yan said.
Marc Lee, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says changes in tax codes in the late 1980s and early '90s incentivized developers to build condos over detached homes.
Statistics Canada found that, from 2019 to 2020, 54.4 per cent of all new houses in B.C. were condos. In Toronto alone, that figure is 59 per cent.
"In Ontario, businesses owned 74,485 condominium apartments for investment purposes," Statistics Canada says in its release. "Most condominium apartments used as an investment in both Ontario and Manitoba were owned by in-province investors."
Lee says the data raises an "overarching issue" of whether housing was increasingly becoming an investment vehicle rather than a human right.
"So much of the wealth ladder in Canada has been based around real estate," he said. "I think it's come at the detriment of quality affordable housing for the majority of folks who are renters."
What is the impact on people?
Yan says his research has found that the median size of an investor-owned property is around a quarter smaller than owner-occupied units, another finding he says raises implications for marginalized people seeking a place to live.
He's also found that a third of all new properties built since the 2000s in Metro Vancouver were specifically for investment — a trend he notes is also taking off in the Greater Toronto Area, which historically has had a high number of owner-occupied condos.
"[In] the last 10 years, you really begin seeing the Vancouver-ization of Toronto," the professor said. "What does this mean for, really, the central city of Canada?"
Yan says that, if policymakers have to accept the reality of investment driving housing availability, they should consider a different, progressive taxation system for those investors.
Lee says any public housing programs, which he wants to see more of, can be funded by using levers like higher property transfer taxes for those who buy multiple properties, especially for domestic investors.
"Locking in affordability for the long-term is going to need to think outside the box," he said. "We should, if anything, be putting more speed bumps around this type of investor behaviour."
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