In Florida, they’re snowbirds—in B.C., they’re ‘speculators’

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, April 13, 2018

Florida remains a popular destination for Canadian retirees and vacationers. Not surprisingly, many people from colder northern states and Canada either rent or own property in Florida to escape harsh winters. In fact, temporary residents in Florida (also known as snowbirds) number more than one million by some estimates, making significant contributions to local businesses, not to mention property and sales tax revenues. Simply put, in Florida, outside money is welcome.

By contrast, in Canada’s hottest housing markets—Vancouver and Toronto—outsiders buying property are typically called less-endearing names, including “non-resident speculators.” They are often portrayed as a major cause of rapid housing-price growth, spurring impassioned political rhetoric accompanied by targeted taxes on their properties. A recent example is British Columbia’s “speculation tax,” which despite recent exemptions, still targets many vacation homeowners.

Here’s the reality. In Florida, B.C. and (to a lesser extent) Ontario, some non-locals want to purchase or lease property without staying in that property year-round. Again, Florida appears to welcome this inflow of investment while B.C. and Ontario appear eager to chase it away. Why the different attitudes?

Consider this. Between 1995 and 2016, on average, Floridian local governments issued building permits for the construction of roughly 15 per cent more housing units (per capita) annually than B.C. municipalities, and a staggering 37 per cent more than Ontario’s. As a result, would-be buyers have far more options in Florida, with homes staying on the market for 45 days, on average. Prices are also far lower in Florida, at a median listing price of US$285,000 according to real estate website Zillow. Florida is a buyer’s market.

By comparison, Vancouver and Toronto are seller’s markets—homes spend only 15 to 17 days on the market (on average), and are far more expensive. Clearly, a lot more people are looking to buy than there are places to buy in Canada’s most in-demand cities.

As such, heavy-handed policies such as B.C.’s so-called “speculation” tax target symptoms (high demand for housing) rather than causes (a lagging housing supply), and create unnecessary divisions among Canadians.

For example, retirees or vacationers with summer homes, cabins or short-term rental units in parts of B.C.’s Okanagan Valley or Vancouver Island are still implicitly portrayed by these policies as “speculators,” despite intentions of long-term ownership (rather than speculative activity such as pre-construction flipping) and despite their contribution to B.C.’s economy in many varied ways. Ironically, rather than increasing affordability, taxing such properties may disqualify many (except those wealthy enough to pay these punitive taxes) from buying in the province’s most desirable locations.

At the same time, housing affordability remains a major concern for many Canadians, and they want governments to act. But rather than penalizing vacationers, snowbirds or temporary residents (a consequence that the recent exemptions will ease, but not erase), provincial and (especially) municipal governments should help correct the balance between demand and supply—by encouraging more supply.

To start, governments can streamline the approval process for the construction of new homes. According to Fraser Institute research published in 2016 and 2017, it takes between one-and-a-half and two years, on average, for homebuilders to obtain building permits in Toronto and Vancouver. Homebuilders also face tens of thousands of dollars in regulatory compliance costs and fees, increasing home prices or limiting the number of homes built including much-needed rental units.

Enabling a more flexible, responsive housing supply is probably not as politically expedient as singling out groups of people for scapegoating. But if policymakers want to actually address the root causes of unaffordability, they should focus on the core problems with the housing market. And a good place to start would be the construction of more homes.

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