Anti-avoidance in the Property Transfer Tax Act

I won’t get into my thoughts on the impact of charging a higher rate of tax to non-Canadians here, but I noticed a strange choice of words in the BC Government’s Bill 28 from this week.  I wrote the following email to Minister De Jong who introduced the bill explaining it and thought I’d share it here.

Minister De Jong,

(With copies to my local MLA Melanie Mark, Minister Responsible for Housing Rich Coleman, and Opposition Spokesperson for Housing David Eby)

I was encouraged this week to see the government finally reacting to the real estate situation in the Lower Mainland.  While I personally do not agree with the widely-held view that non-resident buyers are the primary source of the affordability problem in Vancouver, I think that the changes made in this bill are a good starting point to improve the housing situation in the Lower Mainland. I am especially encouraged by the allocation of the funds raised by the new tax towards the Housing Priority Initiatives special account.
I would like to call to your attention something that I believe is a shortcoming in this bill, specifically with respect to the avoidance provision.  The way I interpret the new section 2.04 of the Property Transfer Tax Act, it applies only to the new Additional Tax, and not to property transfer tax in general. This is put into effect by the definition of “tax benefit”, being “a reduction, avoidance or deferral of tax payable under section 2.02,” where section 2.02 is the charging provision for the new additional tax.
I’m glad that this anti-avoidance provision is included in the legislation, and I’m especially encouraged to see the government has chosen the wording almost directly from ss. 245(2) of the Income Tax Act.  As a Chartered Professional Accountant, I believe the GAAR to be a robust tool for addressing tax avoidance. What I am concerned about, however, is that no such avoidance provision appears to exist anywhere else in the Property Transfer Tax Act.  Does this imply that, absent any specific avoidance provisions, general avoidance of the property transfer tax is still to be allowed?
Given the recent series of media stories showing the many ways in which property transfer tax can be avoided, particularly through assignment, I would like to suggest that before this bill is passed it be amended to change the avoidance provision. This provision should cover all property transfer tax, and not just the additional tax.  If I might, I would suggest changing the section number to 2.3 and changing the definition of “tax benefit” to: “means a reduction, avoidance or deferral of tax payable under this Act.”  In fact, this is the wording the Income Tax Act uses, so I find it curious that the wording was intentionally changed to exclude the regular property transfer tax. Given the intent of general anti-avoidance provisions, I see no reason that the regular property transfer tax should be exempt from anti-avoidance provisions such as this.
Yours sincerely,
Neal Jennings

Some thoughts about this week

It’s often easy to get lost in the online world and forget what the real world is like.

I’ve only crossed paths with a few people “IRL” since the shooting in Orlando (I work from home, so that happens a lot). But almost universally, the tone in their voice, the look in their eyes, the intensity with which they engage with the matter evokes that same feeling of despair, anger, frustration, sadness, and even exhaustion that I’ve been feeling over the last few days. This attack may have been on the LGBTQ community.  But all the straight/cisgendered people who have reached out to me to ask if I’m okay, and the others who I’ve seen come close to tears when even addressing the topic, have helped me feel that I’m, that we’re, not alone in this.

These days I get most of my news from the internet, plus CBC radio, and it’s been wall-to-wall coverage of this incident. I’ve never been one to demand trigger warnings, but this story is basically every trigger I could imagine all wrapped into one.  I’ve taken to actively avoiding both the internet and the radio because every time I think about the incident, and the insane reactions many people are having, I just really can’t deal with it. I shut down, I lose ability to focus, I get equally angry and depressed, and I just don’t want to deal with it.  I mean, I’m fine, and these are normal reactions, but I can only take so much of them in a day.  I do hope the endless news coverage will eventually turn up some much-needed answers, but every time I see a headline about a victim-blamer or gun lobbyist, or a photo collage of some of the many victims, I just want to turn off the internet and disappear into a cozy cave in the woods somewhere for awhile.

It becomes so easy to escape the real world and real emotions. My reaction to the endless stream of posts is “ugh, just stop. please. I can’t take it anymore.” I’m certain I’m not alone in this.  Having real conversations, with real people, in real life, has helped alleviate that… and also forces me to deal with it, at least in small doses. The fact that those people have been sharing the same emotions despite being primarily from outside my queer community has helped all the more. The good people out there outnumber the bad; of that I am certain.

I’m not entirely sure where this post is going, or if it’s even going anywhere. But if you’re wondering about my absence (on facebook, or elsewhere) when it comes to posts on this topic, it’s that I’m just so overwhelmed by it I don’t even know where to start. And to those of you feeling overwhelmed by it too, thanks for joining me in this headspace. We’ll all be okay. And as we become okay again, let’s solve these problems for good.

Surreal Estate

I’ve been trying to give this Vice series a chance – the creators of it do seem genuinely interested in research and getting to the bottom of things.

Having just watched the second (and most recent) instalment, it frustrates me how a lot of people interviewed make it so very clear that the real estate pricing issue is “not a race question but a money question,” implying that wealthy property owners are doing damage in the market (which is a mostly plausible argument). But then they all go on to conclude that foreign owners are the problem anyway. Why is the problem not “people with lots of money”? Why do we continue to use “rich foreigners” as a scapegoat when we have so many rich domestic people too?

As someone who’s called out xenophobia in this debate many times, I also specifically take issue with Dr. Ley’s assertion that “people who play the race card want the discussion to end, they do not want a serious discussion.” Besides taking offense of being accused of “playing the race card,” I find it upsetting to have the entire thing diminished in such a way. Personally, I have problems with the foreigner-scapegoating because it’s clear that the problem is investors in general, and especially investors who leave homes unoccupied (there are other problems, too, but that’s undoubtedly one of them). We can use anecdata to create a proxy between foreigners and empty-house-investors, but to me the xenophobia attached to that (labelling all foreigners as “bad investors”, and all domestic people as inherently okay) is obvious.

The fact that I see a problem with using weak stereotype-based proxies like this does NOT mean I think there isn’t a problem, or that I “want the discussion to end.” In fact, I’d like the discussion to go beyond just the shallow surface “too many Chinese people” discussion, and go deeper to the root behaviours and activities that are causing the problem. If there are too many wealthy investors leaving empty homes in the city, let’s do something serious about it – regardless of their nationality.

Ultimately, the thing that bugs me most about the foreigner-blaming is that it lets badly-behaving-investors who are Canadian off the hook. It assumes that all Canadians have the best interests of all other Canadians at heart, and would never play games with our real estate markets. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I think that’s a very unrealistic assumption.

I also want to bring up a second, and more unnerving point.  There is a remarkable amount of ignorance around Canada’s tax laws and it terrifies me that even realtors are unaware of some of the basic rules. This episode interviewed a realtor who was working with a buyer in Hong Kong.  She was asked “‘What do I have to do as an overseas buyer, what do I have to be careful of or what tax implications are– do I have to be aware of?’ and I [the realtor] said ‘nothing!'”

This is not even close to true! Non-residents who lease out Canadian real estate (it’s unclear if this was the buyer’s plan) are subject to withholding taxes on the rent they receive, and there’s an entire regime built around assessing taxes on rent earned by non-residents.

And when they ultimately sell, any income or capital gain earned as a result of the sale is subject to taxes as well – a lengthy and complex clearance process is required before they are even allowed to receive all the proceeds from their sale, and they are generally required to file a Canadian non-resident tax return to report the disposition and claim back any excess withholding taxes or pay additional taxes if applicable.

The fact that a realtor, whose job it is to advise her client about the risks and implications of the property they’re buying, doesn’t even know this is a really, really, big problem. This is important information for the foreign buyer, but besides that the tax system relies heavily on realtors (and the paralegals they work with, if they work with them) to know what tax laws apply to ensure that proceeds aren’t distributed to the non-resident before the appropriate taxes are withheld.  No wonder so many people think foreigners get away with paying no taxes!

I really appreciate that Vice is bringing forward these perspectives – I just wish it wouldn’t leave unsupportable or in many cases completely inaccurate statements unchallenged.

Why are my property taxes so low?

This might be a little naïve, but I have to ask – why is increasing property taxes never very seriously considered in the Lower Mainland as a way to both raise badly-needed revenues and calm property values? I just got my 2016 property tax bill emailed to me and, after the provincial home owner grant is applied, my total bill for the year came to $484.17.
 
When I punch in my property value on the City of Toronto’s property tax calculator, it comes up with $2,290.95. This means I’m literally paying just over one fifth of what I would pay on a similarly-priced property in Toronto.
 
Compare to cities closer to Vancouver’s size by population (603,502): in Winnipeg (population 663,617) I would pay $3,901.51, in Brampton (population 523,911) it’d be $3,679.92, and in Hamilton (population 519,949) I’d pay $4,564. Even in tax-averse Alberta, property taxes in Edmonton (population 812,201) on a property of the same value as mine would be $2,641.32. If we want to compare to other “big cities” (ignoring municipality size), Montreal’s taxes (taking Outremont as an example) are comparable to Toronto’s, yielding around $2,438.70 on a property value equal to my condo in Vancouver.
 
Despite that, and despite a lot of hype about a 2.3% increase to 2016 property taxes, in fact our property tax rates have gone down every year for the last several. This is especially remarkable given that the biggest rate cuts are for funds allocated to TransLink and the school boards, both of which are experiencing severe budget crises.
 
Given that property values are in part derived on assumptions of expected future cash flows, and adding cash outflows to that equation would (should) naturally drive down prices, that’s all the more argument for increasing, not decreasing our taxes.
 
We could literally double (or quadruple, for that matter) our property taxes in this city and achieve so much more while hurting virtually no one (sorry, but I have no sympathy for the people sitting on million-dollar homes that claim they can’t afford a few hundred dollars more for property taxes).  When I look at the disparity between my laughably-low property tax bill and the inability of the city, TransLink, and the school boards to pay for anything, the solution to me seems obvious. I’m disappointed in the lack of willingness on the part of our politicians to do something about it.

My X-Files Conspiracy Theory: The Mushroom Cave.

 

I recently rewatched the entire series of The X-Files. I had intended to watch it all in advance of the start of the new season that launched at the end of January, but I fell behind and only finished just in time to watch the entire new series over the span of a week.  I also watched the last several seasons in a bit of a rush – I was up to 5 episodes a night at one point. A lot of fans, myself included, look back with not so much adoration on the last few season of the series.  But in rewatching, I actually quite enjoyed parts of the last few seasons, even though some were rather odd.

But season 7 in particular was… odd. The first half was especially bad.  And through the last few seasons, many of the Monsters of the Week were inexplicable – in most cases, literally. Where earlier seasons came up with some sort of report for the FBI, in the last few seasons many of the episodes ended in a great big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And while The X-Files always required viewers to suspend disbelief a little bit, the implausibility of things increased consistently over the last three seasons.  It occasionally made for fantastic television, but piecing it all together (especially when the whole super soldier thing kicked in) was… difficult.  The season 9 finale did its best to pull it all together, which it did remarkably well (save the one big plot hole of Jeffrey Spender claiming to have grown up with CGB Spender (The Smoking Man) despite him clearly being a total stranger the first time they meet on the show).

All that said, why expect seasons 7-9 to make any sense if you realise what was truly going on: that it was all a great hallucination on the parts of Mulder and Scully.

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Vancouver’s real estate story is not about houses – it can’t be.

I promised I would start blogging again this year, so I’m finally doing it!

Vancouver has long been notorious for having expensive and unaffordable real estate.  I’m not going to try to convince anyone that’s not the case, since affordability here is demonstrably a very real problem.  We need to speak out more about the problems the city has with homelessness, underhousing, and the ability of younger generations to have access to the housing market.  These are all real problems, and some people are discussing them very sensibly and urgently.

But over the last year I’ve found myself throwing my arms up in frustration at an endless barrage of reports and infographics portraying a Vancouver that I don’t recognize at all as the one I live in.  Everything from the #DontHave1Million campaign, to this HuffPost infographic, to this $2.4 million teardown. All the reports from this crazy place portray Vancouver’s real estate story, its housing story, as one of million-dollar single-family homes that naturally no one can afford.  I find most tend to be dishonest (or silent) about one fact or another to yield more-sensational-than-reality results – frequently things like geography (how you define “Vancouver”), home type, calculation type, sales period, and others are misrepresented.

There has been some more nuanced coverage, for sure, but it seems like all anyone wants to talk about is houses and why young middle-class people can’t afford them. Most people would have you believe there is a crisis of epic proportions resulting from the fact that only a small minority of people can afford single-family homes in a dense urban area.

When I hear things like “Don’t have 1 million” (and its many variations – I don’t mean to single out any one campaign), what I hear is people insisting that the houses that are selling for a million dollars right now are the kinds of homes that should be affordable to middle-class people (however you define that).  That kind of thinking – that single-family houses are the crisis point – is distracting from the (very real) problems that we actually have.

Single-family houses are not where the crisis lies.  In fact, single-family houses are simply not a realistic urban dwelling – at least not in Vancouver.  This isn’t because I want to take away everyone’s suburban American dream, or because I think younger generations are less deserving of single-family home-ownership than our parents’ generations.  There are simply more of us – some basic math can show why it’s not practical to expect anyone to live in a single-family home in Vancouver. There’s simply not enough space.

I ran a search on realtor.ca of homes in the City of Vancouver listed around the $1 million mark, that magic number everyone likes to scream about.  I selected all homes (which by no small coincidence were all single-family houses, exclusively in East Vancouver) listed between $990,000 and $1,010,000 – there were six of them.  From the listing I summarised the street addresses, prices, and square footage of the land:

Average

This yields an average lot size of 3,266.46 square feet (apologies for using imperial measures, but it seems to be standard in real estate). Dividing into Vancouver’s total surface area of 44.39 square miles (1,237,522,176 square feet), this means that if everyone lived in a million dollar home, and the city had no parkland, commercial or industrial space, or even streets or roads, we would have room for 378,857 single-family homes.  If we subtract only the 2,997 hectares [11.57 sq mi] of roads (this [page 17] is the best link I can find – the number is cited several places but the original source is a dead link), that leaves us with 32.82 sq. mi, or 914,969,088 sq. ft. Doing the math, we get space for 280,110 lots.

Even with the ludicrous assumption of turning the entire City of Vancouver into one huge jobless and parkless suburb (remember, those numbers above don’t account for any land use other than single-family homes and roads), that’s not a lot of homes for our 532K+ people, especially giving shrinking family sizes.  As of the last census, the City of Vancouver had 264,575 households, an increase of 4.4% from 2006. Assuming a similar increase to this census year (2016), that gives us 276,216 households today – just barely shy of the 280,110 number above.

So, the way I see it, we have a few options. We can continue to demand single-family houses for every single household, and use some combination of reducing the population of the city and converting parkland, commercial, and industrial lots to residential in order to achieve it. Or, we can start addressing the real issues, and tackle the issues of affordability at the other end of the spectrum, and give up the expectation of average people (or any people, for that matter) owning single-family houses in the City of Vancouver.

I choose the latter. I know I’m very privileged to own the modest condo I own. I know that many others are less fortunate, and I do believe they should be entitled to participate in home ownership.  Houses will become consistently more expensive as their supply goes down and demand (via population growth) goes up.  It will mean that houses become unaffordable for more and more people – this is an unavoidable reality.

So, let’s focus on the real issues. Let’s look at the price of family-sized apartments and question whether those are affordable for average families (generally, they’re not). Let’s look at the ability of young people to afford starter homes (not the average house, but the low-end condo). And let’s look at how renters are affected. Let’s look at near-zero vacancy rates for rental housing in Vancouver. Let’s look at the impact of how rental housing is structured (a complex mishmash of rented-condos, build-to-let buildings, partial-house rentals, co-ops, and social housing). Let’s look at the shortage of social housing across the city. Let’s look at the large numbers of homeless people in the city who can’t even afford to rent any home.

But please, let’s give up on the urban single-family house.

Open email to Cllr De Genova on bike licensing… and public engagement

I wrote this email to Cllr Melissa DeGenova just now, in response to a Twitter conversation I attempted to have with her (full conversation starts after the email).

[UPDATE: Response is also below]

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