Emulating the Singapore model to boldly solve Toronto’s Housing crisis

Toronto is in the midst of full-blown housing crisis whose severity will soon stretch and tear at our City’s social fabric, inflame socio-political tensions, further erode our resident’s quality of life, and cripple long term economic potential.

Over two decades of insufficient private home building, historically unprecedented low interest rates, and an ongoing torrent of foreign capital investment have created a market Swiss investment banking giant UBS recently crowned “the world’s second biggest City housing bubble.” We have reached the stage where average housing unit costs have hit $880,840 pushing the price-to-income ratio to 8.2; meaning that average housing costs over eight-times gross household income, almost three times higher than ideal levels.

Buying a home is not the only challenge, with a rental market experiencing a surreal vacancy rate of 1.5% and one-bedroom apartment rent rapidly approaching $2,000. Our housing market is poorly structured and caters to investors, many of whom are foreign. Much of our private building capacity is dedicated to building miniscule, overpriced, shoddy but exceedingly profitable condominiums. Recently released data from Statistics Canada asserts that up to 37.9% of these units are vacant.

Superficial pledges from the political class and incremental, modest increases in investment (HousingTO, TCHC subsidy reform, foreign buyers’ tax) that we have seen in recent years do not address the fundamental underlying dysfunction in our market, and are window dressing measures that will do little to nothing to solve Toronto’s housing crisis. Like Singapore in 1960, Toronto is experiencing a severe shortage in housing, sustained population growth, and untapped economic potential. Singapore’s response to its past housing crisis has been internationally respected.

The country created a Housing and Development Board (HDB) that efficiently and rapidly built quality rental apartments to sell at below market rates to needy citizens. Within 5 years, the HDB built 51,000 apartment units and ended the supply shortfall. Today Singapore has a 90% home ownership rate and over 1 million publicly built, privately owned apartment units. Public housing in Singapore is of very high quality and occupied by all classes, rich and poor. Toronto’s public stock is crumbling despite record investment that will still fall short of needs. We have a waitlist of many tens of thousands who realistically will have to wait decades for affordable housing or will never get it at all. Transferring ownership of our public housing stock to current tenants will permanently transform the lives, shift repair liabilities off the city’s books, and free up resources to decisively and honestly resolve our housing supply crisis.

A deeper dive into the (re-ignited) housing boom

Real estate is red hot in the GTA again. The stagnant market conditions with meager gains in price and demand momentum has now been replaced with surging prices, demand, and overall momentum.

Tembo has already noted that the psychology of the market has changed, and it is a far more confident space with greed and fear replacing complacency and lethargy. People are now once again weighing the potential gains of selling, and fear is driving people to jump in and acquire inventory that is scarce but that shows huge potential for equity growth.

What’s concerning to an extent is that inventories of housing are falling. The data shows a near 2% drop in what was available for consumers. People are holding on to stock with the expectation that price gains will continue. Big gains were seen i sales in Durham and York Region. Whitby, Oshawa, Richmond Hill, Newmarket and Vaughan all saw powerful surges in sold inventory. This highlights that Peel Region is maxed out in comparison (there are bidding wars for rentals in Mississauga these days), Halton was less desired than Peel, York, and Durham. Sales soared over 20% in Durham and York, with Halton and Toronto hitting 7%. 

In terms of the types of inventory, detached sales are up over 18% in the GTA. Condo townhouses are becoming increasingly popular and combine a degree of affordability with more space than a tiny downtown box in the sky. Sales of condo townhouses grew by just under 16%. Condo townhouses are increasingly seen as the most positive balance of affordability and space in the GTA. In Mississauga, five of the most affordable neighbourhoods are Applewood, Meadowvale, Fairview, Mississauga Valleys, and City Centre. In almost all of these neighbourhoods, condo townhouses averaged $400-800K, whereas modest detached home prices averaged $800-900K. 

Ghost Condos in the GTA

The condo market has been booming for a generation in Toronto with a tiny blip recorded in the 07-09 slowdown.

Condo flipping made thousands of savvy investors healthy profits throughout this boom, while our skyline has been transformed and developers raked in huge amounts of money. Condos were unheard of until the late 1970s but their value to investors became apparent as they are significantly more profitable than building apartments and collecting rent long term. 

For many, if not most Torontonians, condos are the only way to get a roof over their heads. They are far more affordable and plentiful than detached homes and townhouses. Condos aren’t simply a place to live in, they are also fully financialized assets, similar to stocks, bonds, and tax saving vehicles. Statistics Canada released data in early July of this year which shows that almost 40% of Toronto condos are not owner occupied. This means they are empty, rented out, or used a second property. For many international investors, a condo in Toronto is a money laundering tool. A good lawyer can help anyone with cash use loopholes to maneuver their way through and to buy a condo despite not being a citizen or resident of the country.

This number is one of the reasons we have a housing crisis in our city. So much housing construction is dedicated to building housing units that in many cases aren’t being used by locals. Our housing supply policies are being designed to cater to wealthy investors with tons of cash who are completely disconnected from local culture, life, and history. Greed is dominating our market and it’s leaving the region with a huge supply of extremely expensive housing that few people enjoy and that is out of the reach of many. While government measures have made some progress on reducing these trends, at the end of the day there’s always a way for an investor to take advantage of loopholes. 

Where will GTA housing be next year?

The CMHC recently released a report which attempts to predict the state of housing in our city next year.

The report is bullish, suggesting prices on average will rise by roughly 5% – taking the average home price to between 740-850K. By 2021, the CMHC thinks prices will hit almost 950K. These huge home prices are expected to be sustained even as the same report suggests that home construction numbers will rebound to levels at the time of the 2017 boom peak. The big factors which will underpin these price rises are the predicted strong gains in employment in Toronto, growing migration from other provinces, and growing levels of immigration to the city. The recently re-elected Liberal government will push the immigration level to over 400K, a move that is unlikely to be opposed by the Green Party or the NDP. 

While housing starts (new home construction) are predicted to go up to as high as 36K units by 2020, this is still completely incapable of even remotely satiating demand. Only in late 2021 will pressure on the rental market begin to ease slightly, as the number of new units going online in the market is reaching multi-decade highs. This is sad news for the hundreds of thousands of Torontonians who are living in housing insecurity and who are dealing with bidding wars for rental units, a dream for landlords – who have never had it this good. In other words, don’t expect big changes, things will remain tight, competitive, and above all, expensive. Additionally, CMHC believes that mortgage payments will remain stable over the next years, suggesting that interest rates won’t be swinging widely up or down – this is one of the few good pieces of news in the report for prospective buyers and homeowners who are not interested in selling. 

On the supply side, as we’ve written and explained many times, there’s simply very little capacity for builders to meet the huge demand needs we have. Toronto is building more high rises than any other city in North America, and much of our best land for low density suburban subdivisions has been eaten up. Even with the provincial government already pushing through anti-red tape deregulation measures that will benefit and speed up construction, there is not much that can be done unless all three levels of government come up with a serious, meaty, and very aggressive pro-development housing policy with strong incentives and specific targets. But this is unlikely. At the end of the day the factors which are keeping demand strong aren’t budging, and the forces preventing supply from growing massively aren’t present.

A sizzling September

It’s striking to see the shift in the media’s tone on real estate over the last few months.

The positivity started in earnest in late June and early July, and began to pick up as the summer ended and the school year began. With September 2019 now behind us, a clear and objective picture is available with all the new data that’s been released. Stats show that prices for all types of housing went up strongly from Sept. 2018 figures. The increase was 5.2%. The significance of that growth was highlighted by the Financial Post, which noted that the now median $805.5K benchmark was just $10,000 short of the all-time record high median price set in 2017. What a year for real estate that was. We are a few percentage points away from all-time record real estate highs.

The energy behind all of this good news is the surge in sales we’ve documented a few times now. Double digit increases have returned to the market in all categories. Holy grail detached homes led that charge with 29% increases in sales. Toronto is not the only city in the country recording strong sales, Vancouver’s are up over 46%. Buyers have clearly adjusted to the strict new mortgage rules and developers aren’t able to come up with enough supply to meet demand. Canada’s population is growing very rapidly. Even as immigration targets have risen to well over 300,000 newcomers annually, natural population growth is edging up the overall net increase to well over 500,000. Most of those people settle in the GTA and Vancouver.

Some realtors are firing on all cylinders to meet the demand we’re now seeing. One realtor sold 30 condos in a single weekend and says the stats are returning to 2017 hyper-boom levels. One of the reasons supply is so limited is that so much inventory, particularly condos, are being held by investors from all over the world who rent out the units or put them on Airbnb. Estimates of the total number of condos dedicated to non-permanent use vary, but some high-end numbers put the figure at over 40%. Market watchers are noting that with luxury condo sales exploding supply is not a class issue; everyone is having trouble finding their nest!

The First-Time Home Buyer Incentive

As of September 2, 2019, one of the biggest federal programs to help home buyers in many decades is now in effect. The First Time Home Buyer Incentive, or FTHBI, offers eligible buyers up to 10% of a home’s purchase price (money towards the down payment).

This program will lower the borrowing costs of a hefty mortgage, and gives homeowners slightly more flexibility and options in purchasing their first property. To be eligible, your household income should not exceed $120,000. Second, you should have at least 5% of the purchase price of up to 500K and 10% for more than 500K ready. Third, you should not be borrowing more than four times your qualifying income. And finally, you must be a first time home buyer. 

If you’re buying a $700K home, and you have $70K, the federal government will provide you with $70K so you manage a 20% down payment and so you avoid a stress test or extra mortgage insurance. The $70 the federal government gives you as part of the incentive is not a grant, it’s a loan but with special conditions. You pay no interest and no monthly payments on the incentive. However, after 25 years, or if you sell the house, you have to pay the federal government back 10% of the home’s equity. This is where the incentive may complicate matters for those who qualify and have to decide on going ahead with the money. Over the last 25 years, property values have appreciated by almost 220%, or over 8.5% a year. Let’s say that $700K home appreciates at the very conservative rate of 5.5% a year over the next 25 years just to be safe; that would result in a home value of roughly $2.8 million by 2044.

That means you’ll be sending the federal government a cheque of $280K in 2044. Yes, you had some assistance along the way and got a bigger, better first time purchase, but it’ll cost you in the long term. The incentive can be repaid early, however, and a smart homeowner will repay the incentive before making significant renovations or structural changes to a home that would boost equity. The monthly savings in mortgage payments can also be invested over time which would generate a fair amount of cash ready to repay the incentive. As is always the case with financial leveraging, the first time home buyer incentive comes with advantages and disadvantages but offers first time buyers an option to manage the huge costs of a real estate purchase. 

On The Return of National Real Estate Price Growth

The good news we’ve been writing about haven’t been limited to real estate in Toronto, southern Ontario, and the GTA, it’s spreading across the country.

The national real estate benchmark, which outlines real estate price changes every 4 months, now shows its first uptick since the beginning of the year. After reaching its all time high in May of 2017, when market dynamism was truly ecstatic, the benchmark collapsed and reach a low point exactly 2 years later. September’s number should bring price growth back in the green nationally. What else can be done to help get that number in a better position? Let’s see.

Meanwhile, political pressure on the Federal government to do more to make real estate more accessible to prospective home buyers is building. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has been pressured to extend the amortization of houses from the present 25 years back to 30. This would provide home owners with more time to leverage a mortgage and the possibility of lower monthly mortgage payments. The previous Conservative government cut the amortization period from 35 years to 30, and then the present 25. This aggressive move was done in order to combat excessive dynamism in the real estate market and was welcomed by many, even though it had a direct and immediate impact on the market.

In the United States, 30 year amortization is common, as are fixed rate 30 year mortgages at very low rates. Imagine not having to negotiate and sign for a new mortgage after every 5 years and instead have the comfort of knowing you will enjoy a historically low, locked in rate for the life of the house. A spacious 5 bedroom, 4 bath suburban home in Indianapolis, Indiana, selling for 399K, can be mortgaged out for 1,400 a month with a 3.3% Bank of America 30 year mortgage with an 80K down payment. This is unheard of in Toronto and the GTA. 

A Very Good July for Real Estate

Just look at these numbers, a 4.4% increase in prices from June figures, sales up over 24% from July 2018, and overall sale prices up 3.2% from July of 2018.

The average Toronto home sold for just over $806K. The number of properties that were sold went up to 8,595 from 6,916 from June. This is a huge increase, and all of those numbers were well above official inflation rates. As always, supply of the most desired real estate was tight, driving up prices, limiting options, and redirecting supply to less dense markets and different real estate products. Listings were down 9% from July 2018 numbers, outlining the extent of declining stock. In the rules of supply and demand, when supply contracts prices rise, and the cooling of the market that we’ve been used to recently definitely cooled the market.

tress tests are still around, but their shock has subsided. Families that were locked out by the tests have had more than a year to re-calibrate, to save more money, and discover new financing options. Some may have decided to buy a condo instead of a town-home, or decided to start their real estate equity in a small town as opposed to a cozy suburb. Prospective buyers who saw a cooling market pulled their listings and decided to wait the market out. The contraction in listings that followed are now seeing their impacts fully felt and that pressure is starting to turn 2-3% increases into 4% price increases. All in all, the market is re-orienting back to a more dynamic state, at least for now. 

 

But Tembo feels that certain international pressures could align to add even more oxygen to GTA real estate. First off, as we’ve reported, the Fed cut rates. Within a few days, President Trump lambasted the Fed for not cutting rates FURTHER. Market changes and instability that Tembo will outline in its newsletter have created immediate international reactions to the Fed rate cut and other socio-economic and political changes. Tembo predicts that the BOC will cut rates soon, especially if the pressure to keep monetary easing going builds up in Washington and around the world. Home prices across Canada have remained roughly static for the last two years and rate cuts at home could shift that momentum to price growth. 

The History of Home Prices in Toronto

A few generations ago in the halcyon golden age of 1950s prosperity in Toronto, family homes were incredibly cheap. With newfound post-war home loans for returning GIs, abundant land for development, and a rip-roaring economy, young couples were blessed with plentiful real estate opportunities. The disparity in prices to what is considered average today is mind-boggling. Using the handy Bank of Canada inflation calculator, this blog post will outline decade by decade house transactions to show the state our prices over time. 

Late 1950s

A couple buy a home in midtown Toronto for just over $30K, adjusted for inflation this comes to $130K in today’s dollars. The house is two stories, detached, in a fairly large lot in the Davisville and Yonge area, and considered suburban at the time. (The area of Forest Hill was developed in the 60s and 70s, and was well outside the city’s limits at the time). The house was sold a few years ago for $1.6 million, more than 50 times the purchase price. At the time, a $30K purchase was considered high end, given normal suburban homes in North York, East York, and Scarborough averaged $15-17K at the time. Bidding wars were unheard of, paperwork was minimal, and property taxes were low. 

1960s 

By the late 1960s home prices had risen, but modestly. The average price was in the mid 20K range, or 180K in today’s dollars. Couples could buy comfortable family homes just outside the traditional city core for prices in the high 20K range. Price increases were much more modest and organic then the fluctuations we’ve seen in the last 10-20 years. At the time the economy was not as financialized as it is today, and credit and money supply growth was much more constrained. Throughout the 1960s, homes generally sold for less than 200K in today’s dollars. 

1970s

A similar picture as the 1960s, but with slightly stronger price growth and some fluctuations. Average prices were in the 30-40K range. 

80s

The financialization of the economy took off in the 1980s, and loosening credit and a big stock market boom stimulated a concurrent real estate boom. The late 80s boom was felt worldwide and in almost every economic indicator, Toronto real estate saw incredible growth in that time. But it all ended in 1989. 

90s and transition to 2000s and present

The 90s were a difficult time as interest rates were very high and the bursting of the 80s bubble took its toll. Only by the late 90s, as rates had come down, the dollar had gone up, and prices had recovered, did the seeds of our current boom truly begin to sprout. The rest, as they say, is history. Only 2007-2009 saw a slight blip in the pace of price increases, the rest of the period from the early 2000s to the present has seen rapid price growth. 

Stress Test Relief!

There’s a very big real estate story that isn’t getting much widespread coverage in the community. When federal regulators announced the unveiling of tighter rules on uninsured mortgages and mortgages with down payments of less than 20 percent, the market sputtered.

The move was designed to clamp down on risky mortgages, tighten confidence in the housing sector, and to cool a market that was literally on fire. The tests required that borrowers needed to prove they would be able to manage the costs of their mortgage if rates were to rise. Experts believed the move single handedly knocked out 10% of prospective buyers from having a shot at sealing the deal on a home purchase. We’re talking about tens of thousands of people, at the least. The stress tests were praised by experts, economists, and some bankers but were lambasted by the real estate lobby and politicians. 

After almost a year of criticism and calls for reform we finally have some relief. The rate at which a mortgage holder has to qualify being able to pay for has now gone down from 5.43% to 5.19%. While not a significant change, it will have an impact on those prospective buyers on the margin. Some experts believe that the continuation of a lessening trajectory could have a significant impact on the market, with as little as a further 0.50% reduction lifting thousands into home ownership. Tim Hudak, CEO of the Ontario Real Estate Association asked for federal regulators to restore 30 year insured mortgages, to further ease stress test rules for new homebuyers, and to scrap the requirement that those who change their lender on an existing mortgage have to also pass stress tests. With an election rapidly approaching, don’t be surprised if further loosening of these rules continues, real estate has been repeatedly polled as one of the biggest concerns on peoples’ minds.

 

Finally, when Canadians were asked to pick which city they would own real estate in, the result, quite strongly, was Toronto! That’s right, our city is seen by most average Canadians as the best place in the country in which to own a home. Despite Vancouver’s beautiful natural environs, great weather, and lack of winter blues, and Montreal’s thriving cultural scene, affordable prices, and great food choices, Toronto still won out. Unfortunately for those polled, rents and home prices continue to rise in the city, with one metric showing that the price for two bedroom and one bedroom units is effectively the same. The demand for ANY space is so great that it doesn’t matter how many bedrooms it has. This summer continues to deliver positive news on the real estate file.