On Money Laundering and International Property Ownership Laws

On Thursday, May 30th, the federal government revealed it had found over $1 billion in new tax revenue. Where did the Feds get the money? From real estate. Four years of drawn-out, complicated CRA audits saw almost 42,000 files reviewed in the key housing markets of B.C. and Ontario. The results netted over $100 million just in penalties based on flimsy tax compliance done in real estate transactions. The Feds are doing what they can to shake this ‘money tree,’ and have allocated some $50 million in additional spending to further these audits and to root out more non-compliance. This is on top of hundreds of million of already announced investments in the CRA which started four years ago, all aimed at rooting out tax dodging and generating more revenue for Ottawa to spend without raising taxes. 

 

Canada has established itself as a one of the real estate money laundering hotspots of the world. Some $50 billion was laundered across the country in 2018, with just over $7 billion laundered just in B.C. This is a very rough estimate, as it is impossible to put an exact figure on all of the washed monies. This represents a drop of the many trillions of dollars of ‘dirty money’ floating around international markets. Canada offers anonymity to real, or ‘beneficial’ real estate owners, just like notorious tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man, or the Seychelles. We are recognized for some of the weakest money-laundering laws in the world. And the truth is, our economic stability and quality of life depend on washing dirty money. Without it, the real estate lobby, the big banks, and governments across the country would be starved of business, capital, and revenues to spend. We’re all complicit. 

 

Canada is one of the few countries in the world where there are virtually no restrictions on foreigners buying real estate here. The system depends upon an openness to foreign capital and as many high value transactions occurring as possible. In rapidly growing Thailand, for example, it is almost impossible for a foreigner to own a controlling stake in land or housing. There are very few ways to get around Thai property rules, so Canadians who’d like a beach house in Thailand have to jump through many, many hoops to pull off a buy. In New Zealand, previously lax rules for foreign ownership are being tightened and New Zealand government was elected in 2017 on a campaign of restricting foreign ownership. Prime land in our country is open for their world to buy. 

Ontario’s Housing Revamp Bill 108

The Ford PC government has unveiled a major piece of omnibus legislation designed to promote the construction of new housing and to reform planning in Ontario.

The bill is being passed swiftly by the government, as is the case with most legislation the PCs have introduced. The bill has received a fair bit of media attention and both praise and criticism. One of the key elements of the bill is that it eliminates the two stage appeal process of broad planning reform legislation brought in by the previous Liberal government – returning to a single hearing system. Marking a return with the bill is some of the old powers of the Ontario Municipal Board; namely the return to a single hearing. 

108 also reforms the section 37 system. Section 37 received a considerable amount of attention under former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. The system allows municipalities to arrange special contributions and payments from developers in exchange for variances and changes to zoning and planning rules. The late Mayor Ford believed the system allowed City Councillors to amass pork barrel spending accounts to spend on parks and other amenities while accommodating powerful and wealthy developers and saw it as a corrupt and inefficient system. Most Section 37 money is accrued in the development heavy downtown core and benefits largely left-wing Councillors and politicians. 108 replaces certain provisions of Section 37 with a new community benefits charge and allows the province to exempt certain types of development from the charge. This reform will intensify provincial activity and interest in municipal and local development matters.

Bill 108 also cuts down on timelines for municipal processing of applications from 180 days to 120 days. It also limits witness activity in an appeal and restricts third party appeals to sub division planning and proposals. All of these changes will speed up development, benefit developers, and restrict the capacity of individuals to challenge construction. These are but a few of the changes Bill 108 makes to the system. The province has also expressed its desire to work with a wide variety of stakeholders and partners to get more housing to market. 

Big Housing Projects and the Benefits of Rapid Transit

In the last four decades, major infrastructure projects in Toronto and the GTA have been few and far between. We have fallen behind. The last two major subway lines that were built benefited low density inner suburbs in North York and Vaughan.While these areas are undergoing building booms and seeing density rise, the lack of a completed downtown relief line is overwhelming Toronto’s subway system. Nonetheless, the Eglinton Crosstown is a project nearing completion that is looked upon more favourably by transit and infrastructure experts. 

 

The Crosstown will provide top notch transit service to the city’s dense and heavily populated midtown area. One major benefit of this massive project is the development and rejuvenation of housing where it is needed most. One such project has received favourable attention; the Crosstown planned community by Aspen Ridge on the corner of Eglinton and Don Mills Rd., just north of the Ontario Science Centre. Right on the Crosstown subway line, this housing project will feature almost a dozen high-rises, townhomes, and low rise buildings. It will also feature considerable green space, restaurants, and rec facilities. This kind of broad, dense, and all-in-one is made possible by the construction of major public transit projects.

 

With recent transit announcements showcasing the desire to pour tens of billions of added dollars into public transit lines in Toronto, projects like the Crosstown community will become more frequent. The 60 acres of the Crosstown community previously consisted of low rise office and warehouse buildings, largely owned by the international tech company Celestica. 

The First Conservative Ontario Budget in 15 years

This week, the new Ford PC government released its first budget. The document outlines a new vision for the province and sets of the government’s fiscal strategy for the next few years. Contrary to the views of many, the budget did not implement massive cuts. Healthcare and education spending will be increasingly modestly, spending for most other areas will either rise extremely modestly and will be effectively frozen over the next few years. When adjusted for inflation, most departments and Ministries will see their budgets cut.

 

The province’s headline announcement is transit related. Premier Ford wants to see a number of new public transit lines built, including a 3-stop Scarborough subway, a subway to Richmond Hill, a downtown relief line from the Science Centre to Queen St .East westward to Ontario Place, a transit line along Sheppard Ave. East, and a subway across central Etobicoke. The province is setting aside over $11 billion to the construction of these lines and expects the federal government and the regional municipalities involved to foot the rest of the project $28 billion cost of these projects. If completed, these lines will have enormous implications for densification, land values, traffic, and economic growth. But massive public transit plans have been announced by provincial governments of all political stripes repeatedly over the last 40 years, and few projects have actually been completed.

There were few mentions of housing, housing affordability, or real estate; these announcements are likely to come later given recent reviews of the industry. There will be a new child tax credit for parents which is quite substantive. Overall, the budget is transit focused and seeks to maintain spending at levels where they are presently.

The Fed Rate Freeze

It’s over folks, the Federal Reserve has given up on raising rates to historical levels. The announcement was preceded by rumours and media opinions suggesting the old hike schedule was dead and buried. The Fed’s new schedule outlines no further increases in interest rates for the year of 2019. The next expected rate hike will occur sometime in 2020, if not in 2021. The extent of the Fed’s ‘retreat’ surprised many, given the central bank’s previous dedication to rebuilding its rate cushion to historical norms. The implication of this change will be massive. 

 

The Fed’s decision will pressure the Bank of Canada to maintain a similar trajectory of rate pauses. This will be a boon to the present Canadian status-quo of high debt, ease of credit access, and real estate orthodoxy. There will be positives and negatives to this monetary policy shift. Several factors have pushed the Fed into this corner. For one, economic statistics in the U.S. are worrying policymakers. Home foreclosures are rising and real estate demand is slowing, GDP growth is beginning to falter, and fiscal and trade deficits are on the up. Employment gains have also slowed, in February, the U.S. generated only 20,000 jobs – less than Ontario alone.

 

Political pressure from the White House is also having an impact. Freed from the strains of the ‘Russian collusion’ narrative, Trump is free to enhance his harping on economic and trade issues. This was seen several days ago when he urged OPEC to increase oil production to buttress see-sawing U.S. stock markets. He has repeatedly criticized the Fed publicly and abrasively in a way that no President has since LBJ in the mid 1960s. These attacks and pressures on the Fed prompted a rare 60 Minutes interview where Fed Chair Jerome Powell outlined his views that he cannot be legally fired and that the Fed is concerned over the state of the U.S. economy.

 

The sudden dovishness of the Fed suggests that the underlying state of the U.S. economy is not as healthy as President Trump believes. If the economy is better now ‘then ever before’, than why is the Fed incapable of raising rates to historical averages of 3-5%? The BOC is unlikely to raise rates while they are being frozen in Washington, as this would soften up the Canadian economy and strengthen the dollar at the expense of Canadian manufacturers and exporters. Tembo’s prediction of an end to rate hikes from a slowing economy have come true.

Mortgages Stress Tests Are Slowing Canadian Real Estate Market

The head of one of the country’s largest and most influential real estate bodies has made a strong case to one of the nation’s foremost regulatory bodies to ‘revisit’ its support of stress tests. The head of the Toronto Real Estate Board has complained that stress tests are too cautious and are having an extreme dampening effect on the market.

As a reminder to our readers, stress tests were implemented by the federal government in 2017 to reduce risk of poor mortgage lending and to shore up the housing market.

Stress tests scrutinize mortgage buys from prospective buyers with deposits at less than 20% of the purchase price and with no mortgage insurance. Stress tests provide incentives to purchase mortgage insurance, which can be costly, and add another layer of analysis to the already comprehensive mortgage approval process. Canada’s already notoriously conservative banks were made even more scrupulous with the introduction of the stress test.

Stress Test Have Dampened Demand

Stress tests were designed to demonstrate whether a low deposit mortgage could withstand a 2% added interest rate cost from the BOC. The effects of these stress tests have been to dampen demand. Research has shown that stress tests effectively blocked up to 100,000 first time home buyers from being approved for a mortgage. They were supported by risk-averse bureaucrats and economists who fear a housing bubble and who are worried about the quality of mortgage issuance in the country.
In response to these complaints, the OSFI, or Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, Canada’s core banking regulator, stated that it will be sticking to the stress tests. In addition, it made the point that the stress test adds a margin of safety that is ‘prudent.’ With weakening real estate data spreading around the country, pressure from real estate bodies and experts on regulators and the Bank of Canada will continue. 

US Fed Made Some Significant Shifts In Tone & Policy Last Week

We’re addicted to covering the Federal Reserve at Tembo for the simple reason that it effectively runs the global economy and sets the tone for Canada’s economy, exchange rate, and real estate market. It is that important an organization.

James Powell, US Fed Chair
The Fed has made big changes in tone and policy lately, it appears growingly certain that its previous zealous push for higher rates has now been put on a deep pause. The word on the street is now all about ‘rate hike pausing.’ The Fed has been under huge pressure from business leaders, Wall Street insiders, softening economic data, and Donald J. Trump himself. 
Fed Chair Jerome Powell did not raise rates at the last Fed policy announcement. Former Fed Governor Neel Kashkari said the pause would allow the economy to keep growing. Global markets have reacted to the news timidly. While no big falls in stocks occurred, global markets at best were static.
There is simply too much negative news, too much uncertainty, and too much increasingly bleak data around the world to heighten optimism to boom levels. Here in Canada, the Fed’s pause is likely to reinforce the BOC’s own caution given Canada’s own worsening economic data. This pause will be good news for Canadian real estate, already under big pressure.
At the same time, the Fed issued a paper suggesting that negative interest rates, where the Central Bank pays borrowers to borrow money, would have engendered a fasterand deeper economic recovery. This not so subtle message to the market suggests the Fed is making it clear that it is still in the business of inflating stock, asset, and real estate bubbles and making money dirt cheap if need be.

On 2018’s Final Real Estate Stats

For Tembo’s final blog of 2018, we want to leave you with some interesting GTA statistics. All of our predictions for 2019 were outlined in our final newsletter – many of which are beginning to look on point given big falls in the markets marking the end of 2018.

fireworks

Stress Tests Have Kicked In 

Some 100,000 Canadians have been locked out of the housing market because of federally imposed stress tests. Already stringently cautious banks were made even more particular in approving mortgages because of the impact of the federal government’s stress tests. These tests force families with lower than ideal deposits for home purchases to buy insurance to cover their investment and reduce risks.

Pensions Are Pumping Up Real Estate Holdings

Trusteed pension funds have boosted their holdings in real estate by 2.5% to almost $190 billion as 2018 closed. Despite seeming like a small percentage change, this represents billions in added investment. In our last blog and newsletter, we highlighted the importance of real estate to the nation’s wealth, and this stat shows the reliance on real estate to the nation’s trusteed pension funds. All sectors of the economy are all in on real estate, and expect dividends and returns from a continuously healthy real estate market. 

Global Markets Are Falling Fast

stock market crash

The DOW underwent its worst day of Christmas trading in history, dropping over 600 points (3%). The Fed’s decision to increase rates last week was to blame. In addition Wall Street was spooked by news that U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made calls to the CEOs of America’s biggest banks without authorization from the President to check on their liquidity. This was viewed by many as an act of panic. The contagion quickly spread around the world, with some international headlines using the term ‘panic selling’, for the first time since 2007.

Toronto Home Prices Up In November

Prices for detached homes rose 3.5% to mark the end of 2018, even as listings and sales dropped slightly. We end 2018 with the average price of a detached home in Toronto now hitting some 788K. While listings declined slightly in November and early December, they were still 12% than in 2017. Home prices are still significantly lower from their summer 2017 record highs. 

On Government Owned Real Estate

Few Ontarians know this, but hundreds of properties worth many billions of dollars are sitting empty across the province.

Previously a psychiatric institution, Century Manor in Hamilton is one of more than 800 disused buildings owned by the province of Ontario. (Sourch: Samantha Craggs/CBC) 
These properties are owned by the province of Ontario and number some 800 vacant buildings. Given that the province of Ontario is the second-largest property owner in the country, second only to the federal government, some vacancies are understandable. In total over 4,500 buildings are owned by the province, covering some 44 million square feet of space. 

Ontario Provincial Government Has Way Too Much Office Space

The Auditor General criticized the previous Liberal government repeatedly over its real estate practices. One of her complaints was that the province uses too much real estate, wasting $174 million in overused office space. Almost $20 million is being spent a year servicing and maintaining the vacant buildings. In response, previous Liberal politicians have mentioned that much of the vacant real estate stock is not desirable, such as decaying old jails, remote buildings, or dilapidated property. The province has failed to meet sale targets of the vacant buildings, only 25 were sold in 2017, even though the desired target was twice as high.

Government Owned Real Estate Needs Be Managed Much Better

Experts have repeatedly mentioned that government owned real estate is under-utilized and poorly managed. For example, ad revenue at GO Stations is very low despite high traffic. The City of Toronto also owns considerable vacant property, underused buildings, and brownfield (unused industrial zoned land), that it could sell and/or return to greater productivity to the private sector. Solving real estate problems and opening up opportunities for purchase is not only about restricting foreign buying, or tightening up lending standards, it’s also about changing the status-quo. 

Rental Housing, We Need It

toronto skyline

The rental vacancy rate in Toronto is at a record low of 1.1%. In other words, there are few, if any, vacant rental units available in the rapidly growing city. Prices for a bachelor apartment now exceed $1,500 and condo rent is also rapidly increasing to reach $2,000 in many cases. The lack of affordable rental housing, once plentiful, consistently built, and widely appreciated in Toronto, is crunching and distorting the real estate market. From the 1950s to the early 1980s, rental apartments were consistently and routinely built. Much of the existing rental stock was built in the 1960s.

Why Building More Rental Housing Is A Good Idea

There are many financial disincentives to building rental housing. Permits are hard to come by, government intervention has interfered in building plans; mandating certain number of affordable units, and it is easier and more profitable in the short term to rapidly sell newly built condo units. Rent control measures recently introduced by the outgoing Liberal government in Ontario will make disincentives to build rental housing greater as it adds red tape to removing troublesome, potentially costly tenants. The new PC government will maintain these rent control measures, but also have the opportunity to introduce measures to spur new rental housing development.

Are We Paying Too Much To Rent?

Tenant organizations and groups have released polls showing that over half of Toronto rental tenants are reporting that they feel that they pay too much in rent. More affordable rental housing will help young millennials, student, and families save for an eventual condo and house purchase. It will also take some pressure off the condo market, under huge pressure to meet demand which is showing no signs of abating. Most housing experts believe that a heathy rental vacancy rate should be from 3-4%, four times present levels.

top ten median rent across canada