Projections and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

jointly authored with Jens von Bergmann at MountainMath

 

When people want to live in your city, how many should you let in? On the one hand, this is a moral question. Do you have an obligation to people who don’t already live here? On the other hand, it’s a moot question. At least in Canada, cities don’t have the power to control migration.

BUT WAIT! Cities DO have power over how many new dwellings to allow. This actually changes our moral question a bit. Cities can’t keep people out, but because they have power over dwellings, municipalities can control how many people get to remain in. As a result, if you don’t allow any new dwellings when people want to live in your city then rich people will generally outbid poor people for the housing that’s left.

It may be the case that municipal politicians are fine with rich folk replacing the poor folk in their cities while their own housing rapidly appreciates in price. Why let any new housing get built? “No thanks, we’re full!” But they can’t always SAY this. Especially in cities full of renters that generally support progressive and inclusive values.

So what to do? Two paths are readily available. One: transform the moral question (“isn’t it terrible that developers make money off building housing?”) Two: turn the moral question into a narrow technocratic one instead. Let’s explore this latter option a bit more, because it’s really interesting and sits well within our wheelhouse (mathematician and demographer).

Here in the City of Vancouver, a new motion was just launched, titled Recalibrating the Vancouver Housing Strategy (RVHS). There are some good initiatives in this motion, but the main thrust and motivation is to turn the moral question of how many people get to remain in Vancouver into the narrow technocratic question of how do we forecast population growth? As any demographer can tell you, this can be tricky, especially when it comes to forecasting for municipalities. But there’s a naive kind of work-around some people use when they don’t follow demographic techniques and concerns very closely and don’t want to think too hard about the question at hand. They simply turn the population forecast into a projection forward from how a city grew in the past.

This is a neat trick! Especially if you’re in a city that’s limited new dwellings in the past and thereby kept its population growth to a minimum and you want to keep it that way. “The evidence suggests we haven’t been growing very fast, so we shouldn’t add much more housing.” With a little bit of hand-waving, the number of dwellings allowed by the city is reimagined as something that can be tailored to meet the forecast rather than the central determinative factor of the forecast.

Is this the kind of thing that could happen in Vancouver? Before we get into the motion, let’s just quickly look at Vancouver’s recent past. We know prices and rents rose rapidly through 2016 (and beyond), which is pretty good evidence that we didn’t add enough housing for the people who wanted to live here all by itself. But how did the City of Vancouver grow relative to the rest of the region? It grew more slowly. (“No thanks! We’re full!”) Did we lose poor people and replace them with rich people as a result? Yap, this is exactly what has happend in the City of Vancouver, which has lost lower and middle income people, and gained high-income people, at a faster pace than the surrounding Metro area.

2005-2015_rel_change-1

 

The Motion

Now let’s get back to that RVHS motion, starting with part A:

THAT Council direct staff to revisit the Housing Vancouver Strategy targets to align with historical and projected population growth based on census data.

This is a vague statement. There are, of course, many ways to “align” something (Dungeons and Dragons fans may be immediately reminded of the nine different alignments readily found therein). There are also many ways to project population growth. These often rely upon multiple sources of data. Birth rates, death rates, age structure, labour market statistics, and net migration rates serve as typical baseline sources of information for demographers, and are usually gathered from all manner of data (e.g. vital statistics, surveys, policy-based immigration projections, etc.) rather than simply historical census data. So how is the author of this particular motion imagining more specific alignments and projections? The answer can probably be found in the WHEREAS sections 4 and 5:

Population growth has been consistent at approximately 1% per annum over the past 20 years according to Statistics Canada census data. Based on this historical trend, a similar growth rate for the coming decade would amount to a population increase of around 66,000. In the City of Vancouver, the average household size is 2.2 individuals per dwelling unit (or “home”);

The target of 72,000 new homes across Vancouver in the next 10 years multiplied by 2.2 would mean a population increase of 158,400 – more than twice the historical rate. A projected historical rate of population growth would imply instead a need for roughly 30,000 new housing units over the coming decade;

We’ve left the refined techniques of demography behind here, as well as the determinative forces of births, deaths, and moves. Indeed, people pretty much disappear and their dwellings get only scare-quotes as homes. But let’s follow the math we do get and try and understand what projecting past trends means in terms of numbers (leaving aside if we agree that things went splendid and we should just keep going the same way). Let’s try and reproduce the estimation of new housing units assuming we hold the 20 year trends in the two mentioned metrics, population and household size, constant.

The 1% annual growth rate roughly checks out, although there have been variations.

cov-vs-metro-pop-growth-1

 

And population in the City has grown consistently at a lower rate than overall Metro Vancouver population. In fact, if the City of Vancouver had grown at the same rate as Metro Vancouver over those 20 years, Vancouver would have had 60,000 more people within city limits in 2016. But maybe people would just rather live farther out in the surrounding suburbs? Again, there are variations, but overall that is not what the price and rent data tell us.

rent-unnamed-chunk-3-1

 

People want to live in Vancouver. But they often settle for living farther out, based on the specifics of what they want and can afford. The competition for the limited number of dwellings in Vancouver drives up prices here relative to surrounding municipalities.

So what to make of the close relationship between population growth and dwelling units added? It’s a real relationship.

dwelling-pop-unnamed-chunk-4-1

 

The motion, as presented, seems to suggest that this close relationship is evidence that we’re projecting population growth really well, thereby allowing almost perfectly enough new housing to meet population needs. Is this what we’re doing? Well, no. In fact, the amount of new housing allowed sets a cap on population growth that can only be exceeded by increasing household size (which in many cases cities have also made illegal)1 or decreasing the number of empty dwellings.

There is broad support for decreasing the number of empty dwellings, and both the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia have put in place taxes on vacant properties and their owners to do just that. Have they succeeded? Quite possibly! But compared to other municipalities, Vancouver’s vacancies (as recorded in the Census) looked relatively normal prior to the new taxes, despite persistent rumours of some mythical oversupply. After the new taxes, administrative data reveals there aren’t many taxable units left vacant at all (~1%).

What about household size? The motion suggests imposing a constant for Vancouver, expecting 2.2 people per household. But household size is not staying constant. It’s falling all across Canada, due to a combination of forces (aging of the population, declining childbearing, changes in partnership, the rise of people living alone). We also know that as people get richer, they tend to occupy more space. And, as pointed out above, Vancouver’s been getting richer.

hh-size-chunk-5-1

 

As we see, household size in the City of Vancouver has continuously declined over the years, a trend that has significant impact on the relationship between housing and population growth. Sticking with the bad assumption that past population growth should be predictive of future housing needs, we can see that we’re still going to need more housing per person than in the past. Projecting these trends forward, lazily anchored at the 2016 census data, gives an increase in population in private households of about 67,000 and a corresponding increase in 41,000 households (aka occupied dwelling units). And that is not yet accounting for the increase in population in non-private households that Vancouver has experienced, like retirement homes or similar institutional housing.

So if the RVHS motion points us toward a bad way to do population projections, then how should one do it? There are lots of models to look at, but given that people want to live in Vancouver, a key ingredient in any model should be how much housing will be allowed. Conditional on allowing a given amount of housing, we can attempt to forecast how many people will come. But this moves us back from narrow technical questions (which we’re more than happy to continue exploring in depth!) toward the central moral question at hand. How many people are we comfortable allowing to live in Vancouver? Because if we allow more housing, more people will come. And if we allow more housing, we’ll also allow more of those currently at risk of feeling unwanted in Vancouver to stay.

That begs the question: What would be the problem with allowing more housing? The last WHEREAS of the RVHS motion holds an answer to that.

A revised and more accurate understanding of demographic needs and demand will assist in properly planning for the post COVID-19 reality. Setting excessively high targets will pressure the City of Vancouver to grant significant amounts of density at a low price, in an attempt to induce housing construction approaching the HVS targets. This will cost the City of Vancouver potential revenue, and will mean that the City abandons its commitment to having growth pay for itself.

In short, housing might get cheaper. Which incidentally is quite in line the goals of the Vancouver Housing Strategy.

But there are a couple things here that need a bit more unpacking. First, from the title throughout the motion and showing up here again are mentions of planning for a “post COVID-19 reality.” To put it bluntly, this is odd. These parts of the motion caution us against assuming what comes next will reflect what came before. But, as discussed above, this is exactly the assumption the rest of the motion says we should make, resting as it does upon a very selective reading of Vancouver’s recent population growth. Weird contradiction. But then again, pretty much the same language has been employed way before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar, suggesting that COVID-19 has just been tacked on for extra effect.

Second, the notion that “growth pay for itself” sounds quite reasonable, but it’s not clear what that means in practice. In Vancouver, new housing projects pay a variety of municipal fees, DCLs, CACs and additional engineering fees upfront, and annual property taxes thereafter. How much of the overall cost of living in the city should be charged upfront, and how much should be charged over the lifetime of the housing as property taxes? That’s a political question that Vancouver should have a discussion on.

Charging high entry fees keeps prices high, not just of new housing but of all housing. It encourages treating housing as an investment, with low holding costs (property taxes) and high barriers to increasing housing even as population pressures keep prices and rents rising.

Charging a lower entry tax and collecting a higher portion as property taxes later can lower the entry point to housing and spreads the costs out over the lifetime of the dwelling unit. This treats housing as a place to live, lowering the barriers to new housing construction and asking people to pay for city services and amenities over their time living in the city.

The (sort of) good parts of the motion

Let’s end with a few bright notes. There are some good parts to the motion! We like data and Part B asks:

THAT Council direct staff to provide annual historical data since 2000 on the number of units approved through rezoning, the breakdown of housing types that have been approved, housing starts and net housing completions, and estimated zoned capacity for the City of Vancouver.

This part of the motion is asking for better data, but it needs refinement. As it is right now it is hard to see what it will accomplish.

Number of units approved through rezoning is hard to interpret unless it is accompanied by more detail on how many of these units actually got built. Take the approved first version of the Oakridge development for example. A massive number of units got approved, yet the project died when drilling found an aquifer that precluded the project from going forward as approved. Several years later, a different proposal got approved, for the data on approvals to be useful we need to know what happened to those units.

Monthly data on housing starts is already easily available, asking the data be reproduced adds zero value and amounts to a waste of staff time.

Net housing completions is an important number, but very hard to do in Vancouver, given our high reliance on informal housing. It is still worthwhile to try and approximate this, but the motion should be clearer what part staff should focus on beyond the data on completions, demolitions and secondary suite estimates that we already have.

Estimates of zoned capacity is a great stat to get clarity on. Some vague estimate has been making the rounds for a while after surfacing in a consultant report, with next to no detail how it was derived. Having an estimate with a clear methodology would be a great addition to inform Vancouver housing policies.

Part B is a good and simple ask:

THAT Council direct staff to clarify whether the Vancouver Housing Strategy targets refer to net housing completions or gross housing completions.

Part E is mostly redundant:

THAT Council direct staff to provide detailed inventory data through the Open Data Portal4 of housing starts, development projects anticipated in the pipeline (including form and type of units), and existing zoned capacity (disaggregated by local area) to inform this work.

The open data portal already has detailed information on housing units in the pipeline. The information could be improved, but this ask is useless unless it specified how. As mentioned before, detailed information on housing starts is already easily available as open data, monthly stats by structural type and intended market, down to the census tract level. It is less helpful than the other parts above and risks directing staff resources away from other project just to replicate what’s already out there.

Bottom line

There’s no way around it. How many dwellings to allow in a city is ultimately a moral question rather than a technocratic one. Given the overwhelming evidence that people want to live in places like Vancouver, population forecasts necessarily reflect first and foremost how many new dwellings we’re willing to allow. In technical terms, it’s silly to imagine we’re meeting the needs of population growth when we’re in fact setting a hard cap on population growth. In moral terms, we come back to the central question: Are we planning for kicking poor people out? Or are we open to inviting more people in?

As usual, the code underlying the stats and graphs is available on GitHub for anyone to reproduce or appropriate for their own use. And if you want to read (much) more about how to know if you have enough housing, check our simple metrics post.


  1. For example the City of of Vancouver only allows at most one kitchen per dwelling unit and limits the number of unrelated individuals sharing a dwelling to 3 (+ 2 boarders or lodgers) to restrict sharing of homes. [return]

So are you two a couple now? Asking for the BC Government

BC has been lauded for rolling out an assistance program for renters, unlike basically every other province. At the same time, BC’s also been criticized for the perceived inadequacy of that rental assistance program, as well as the fact that it literally goes straight to landlords. In conjunction with the temporary eviction moratorium, it would appear that the BC Temporary Rental Supplement (BC-TRS) is really aimed at supporting landlord incomes and easing tenant-landlord relations to avoid a rash of evictions once the moratorium has been lifted.

Here I want to question another aspect of the program, at least as we’ve seen it so far: What’s it got against couples?

The BC Temporary Rental Supplement, as announced today, provides $300 per single person or couple household, and $500 per household with dependents. But roommates can apply separately for benefits, and it would appear each roommate is eligible for a $300 or (if living with a dependent) $500 rent supplement. Here are relevant items from the FAQ:*

Rental_Assist_1This means the “household” definition being applied by the province – whereby roommates constitute separate households – best matches the “family” definition of the Census, whereby family is defined by a couple (married or common-law) or parent-child relationship. The Census considers roommates as members of the same household, but unrelated, and hence not members of a family.

Why does it matter? Well, what’s the distinction between roommates and a couple?** Because if you’re a COUPLE you max out at a $500 benefit with children or a $300 benefit without. But if you’re ROOMMATES, it appears you qualify for $300 each, or more if there are children involved, maxing you out at $600+. In effect, couples have their status turned against them in terms of government benefits.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the current BC government has zeroed in on couple status as a determinant of less than favorable policy treatment. The BC Speculation and Vacancy Tax hinges upon marital status in terms of whether overseas partner incomes get counted toward family incomes, distinguishing “satellite families” hit with higher property taxes from everyone else. In effect, if you own a home this is a huge disincentive for formalizing, declaring, or maintaining transnational relationships, at least if your partner potentially earns more than you. BC tax policy says it’s better for you to split up than stay coupled with anyone outside of Canada, just as BC renter support policies seem to tell us it’s better to be single (with a roommate) than part of a couple.

One way of looking at the government position on rentals is that couples might be considered more resilient than singles. So singles, including roommates as well as single parents (who get $500), need more help and more allowances. And as I wrote previously, with respect to rental supports this might well be correct. Singles and single parents make up the bulk of those in core housing need. I’m happy that the BC government is providing special help to those with dependents, even if I wish the amounts were higher.

HouseholdsRenting-fx2

It’s also the case, as in my past research auditing rental listings, that BC’s tipping of the scales against renting couples might actually counteract some of the beneficial treatment they usually receive in the rental market, where landlords tend to discriminate against single parents and some same-sex couples (who may, in some cases, have been taken for roommates). Finally, policy is being rolled out at a ridiculously fast speed, which is important and a success in its own right because people are in need of money now. But that speed is bound to come at a cost in terms of care in crafting policies. We’ll see plenty of mistakes and unintended consequences of fast policy roll-out in the days to come. We shouldn’t forget the urgency behind the roll-out, even as we offer up critiques and fixes.

That said, we’re left with a fun contrast. If Pierre Trudeau famously declared “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” the government of BC still wants to know: are you two an item?

 

UPDATE (Apr 12, 2020):  Another interpretation (in this case my partner’s) is that the BC – TRS is geared entirely toward assumptions about how many bedrooms different kinds of households need and what the associated costs might be. The logic being that couples might only need 1BR, whereas parents with children need at least a 2BR, and roommates are (ironically) assumed to sleep in separate bedrooms, also requiring at least a 2BR. This interpretation actually mirrors the logic of the Canadian National Occupancy Standards defining the suitability aspect of the Core Housing Needs measure. Accordingly, BC-TRS payments could be designed simply to go up in response to anticipated bedroom need. I like this interpretation a lot, so I thought I’d share it too! (I hinted at the importance of considering bedroom need in my previous post on the renter benefit, only I didn’t think they’d adopt the couple assumption from the National Occupancy Standards, which I’ve also researched in the past! Kicking myself a little that I didn’t think of this interpretation first, but also patting myself on the back for settling down with someone more clever than me…)

 

*- Yeah, also your adult kids don’t qualify as roommates (item 18) and you don’t get any assistance if your landlord is also a family member (item 19).

**- As it happens, I asked just this question in my dissertation… though from a viewpoint embedded within demography (i.e. are people more likely to cohabit with an unmarried partner in response to housing shortages, making them like roommates, or less likely, making them act more like married couples?) In the context of Swedish demography, easier access to housing meant greater likelihood of cohabitation, providing evidence that cohabiting couples tended to be acting more like married couples than economizing roommates. BUT, there’s a lot of grey in there. Especially insofar as we usually leave it to people to define their own relationships.

 

 

 

BC Renters by Household Type & Need

Yesterday BC unrolled a quick support package for tenants and landlords affected by COVID-19 related job and income losses. In addition to an effective moratorium on evictions (yay!) and a rent freeze for the duration of the crisis, the province offered $500 going directly to landlords to offset rents for those with lost income. The measure appears to be aimed at preserving landlord incomes and landlord-tenant relationships even as the eviction moratorium temporarily boosts the bargaining power of tenants. Lots of details remain to be determined, including, apparently, whether the benefit applies per tenant or per unit.

Here I wanted to quickly toss out relatively recent figures for what renter households look like in BC, broken out by Core Housing Need. Data come from a quick run with Census Analyser (CHASS) for 2016.

HouseholdsRenting-fx2

Many renting households contain more than one income earner, likely making them reliant upon multiple incomes that might have been affected by COVID-related disruptions. If BC goes with a $500 benefit per unit (as opposed to per tenant), this may diminish the ability of multi-income households to make rent. On the other hand, together with the federal CREB benefits of $2000 per month for up to four months, and BC’s $1000 one-time benefit, households that have lost multiple earners will (eventually) be bringing in replacement income. In the meantime, they’re left to negotiate with landlords – who cannot evict them for nearly any reason – for the duration of the crisis.

If we look at renting households in core housing need (before the crisis), most were likely single-income earning households. Single-person households will do the same in the present crisis regardless of whether the $500 rental benefit applies per tenant or per unit. But a lot of renter households contain children and these are also over-represented in core housing needs. Notably, this included over half of all single-parent households in BC even before the COVID crisis. If the benefit applied per tenant and actually included children, it might go a long way toward diminishing the immediate crisis besetting many single parents. It might also assist couples with children, whether they’re reliant upon a single income or not.

More broadly, BC should probably consider targeting some relief at parents, who can no longer rely upon schools or daycares for childcare. But renters with children also face an additional housing burden insofar as their rents tend to be higher. After all, they’re often paying for extra room without the benefit of an extra income. The federal benefits flowing to households with multiple lost incomes will only apply once (if that) to single-parent households. BC should consider extra rent benefits for these households.

Of course, this was true before the COVID outbreak. More broadly, COVID-related policy in BC, and Canada as a whole, so far seems to be working toward putting in place hasty new patches to its old social safety net. This is a good start, but Canada also needs to patch the rips that were already there, which are being torn even further apart under the strain of the present crisis. Raise supports for children. Raise the disability rates. Put policies in place to insure that Canada’s right to housing is more than just a vague promise. If we’re all in this together – as we should be – then now’s the time to prove it by renewing the social contract for everyone. Let’s get to it.

 

UPDATE: Single person households make up a larger portion of renter households (above) than they contain in terms of total renters (below). Both are useful figures, but I earlier posted a figure with numbers based on total renters within households, rather than renter households. I’ve corrected the above to remain consistent with the language of households and avoid confusion. The slide based on total renters within household is now posted below.

HouseholdsRenting-fx1

Knock Knock Anybody Home?

co-authored with Jens von Bergmann & cross-posted over at MountainMath

Empty homes are in the news again in West Vancouver after a West Vancouver council motion asking the province for the power to levy their own Speculation and Vacancy tax.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Provincial Government provide local governments with the power to levy their own Speculation and Vacancy Tax, so that they too can address housing affordability and other community effects of vacant homes.

West Vancouver seems interested in the empty homes and not the satellite family component of the SVT, which may well be a wise choice given how messy and problematic a law defined based on spousal relationship can get.

The motion is interesting for several reasons, not just because of the focus on vacancy vs satellite families. It sets the stage by naming housing affordability as a key challenge.

WHEREAS housing affordability is a key challenge in many municipalities but particularly in the District of West Vancouver with a median house price of $2.5 million, and a rental vacancy rate of 1.2%;

As evidence the motion rightly points at the low rental vacancy rate. The ownership metric is curious though as it explicitly focuses on “houses”, excluding more affordable multi-family units from consideration. This is likely no accident, as West Vancouver has a solid track record of focusing their energy on the most expensive type of housing by permitting fewer multi-family homes than more expensive single-detached houses to be built, the latter of which often just replace older single-detached homes and do not add to the dwelling stock.

west-van-completions-1

 

The next part reads:

AND WHEREAS according to the 2016 Census, approximately 1700 homes, or almost 10% of dwellings in West Vancouver, were identified as “unoccupied”;

This is incorrect, the 2016 census enumerated 1,525 unoccupied dwelling units in West Vancouver, comprising 8.2% of the total dwelling stock. Council is only partially to blame for this misstatement, reporting on this census metric has generally been sub-optimal, to say it politely. The problem is not just about getting the number right, but more importantly understanding what the numbers mean. The census enumerates homes that are empty on census day, and homes can be empty for several reasons. Some of which are mundane and even desirable, just one “whereas” ago it looked like council wanted more unoccupied homes – that are available for rent. There are other categories of unoccupied homes that are important in enabling residential mobility, homes that are rented but not moved in yet, homes that are for sale and unoccupied or bought and not moved in yet. The US ACS tries to track down reasons why homes are unoccupied, it can be instructional to use that as base of comparison when looking at Canadian data as in the following graph based on some of our past joint work.

West_Van_2

 

Being unoccupied on a particular day, for example Census day, does not give direct information about homes that might be targeted by an empty homes tax. The list of exemptions in Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax or the provincial Speculation and Vacancy Tax opens another window into reasons why homes may be empty.

We can further break down the unoccupied homes the census found in West Vancouver by structural type.

west-van-unoccupied-3

 

In West Vancouver, most homes registering as unoccupied are single family homes, followed by units in suited single family homes that the census refers to as “Apartment or flat in a duplex”. This is to a large degree due to the building stock that leans heavily on single-detached homes. The two dwelling types have also been responsible for most of the growth in homes classified as unoccupied in the census.

It is helpful to also look at shares of homes in each type that registered as unoccupied, and put in context with the Metro Vancouver shares.

west-van-unoccupied-share-4

 

The shares of unoccupied homes are generally higher in West Vancouver, with the exception of row houses and highrise apartments. The shift in row houses is fairly recent, and should probably not be over-interepreted because of the small overall number of row homes. The difference in rates of unoccupied highrises likely stems from a relatively high share of rental highrises in West Vancouver.

The high share of unoccupied “duplex” units stands out. Recall that in Metro Vancouver units classified as “duplex” by the census are mostly suited single family homes. These register with the highest share of unoccupied homes throughout Vancouver, which is driven by empty secondary suites in such houses. Incidentally, secondary suites are exempt from both the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax and the provincial SVT.

In all of this it is important to remember that census unoccupied counts were taken back in 2016, before these taxes came into effect, and some owners will likely have changed their behaviour because of the tax and rented out or sold their previously empty home. Indeed, we now have a much more recent and much better defined dataset predicting how many problem empties are likely to be taxed by an Empty Homes Tax in West Vancouver. That dataset comes from the Speculation and Vacancy Tax itself. Worth noting: we are still in the pre-audit phase for the SVT and it is not clear how many owners are trying to dodge the tax by declaring incorrectly. But setting aside Satellite Families (where homes aren’t empty), the SVT numbers for the City of Vancouver aren’t very different from the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax numbers, where we are now in the third year and already have two years of complete declarations and audit cycles. So far so good.

Bottom line is that a much more reasonable expectation of the number of homes that may be targeted by a West Vancouver empty homes tax at this point is around 221, the number of vacant homes paying the SVT.

west-van-SVT-5

The next two whereas speak to revenue expectations.

AND WHEREAS the Province reported that in 2018, $58 million was collected under the Speculation and Vacancy Tax program, and that $6.6 million of that was collected from West Vancouver homeowners;

AND WHEREAS the Province of British Columbia gave the City of Vancouver the power to impose its own vacancy tax which has provided Vancouver with approximately $40 million in additional revenue;

The $6.6 million cited as being collected from West Vancouver covers both, vacant homes and homes occupied by satellite families. Only $4.1 million was collected for vacant homes in West Vancouver. The comparison the the City of Vancouver tax is somewhat irrelevant to this discussion, other than stressing again that revenue expectations is an important driver of this motion. One should note here too that the tax rate West Vancouver could charge for vacant homes is limited by a very simple calculus. Once the combined tax rate of municipal and SVT vacancy taxes exceeds the property transfer tax, owners can trigger a sale to e.g. a relative in order to pay the lower property transfer tax and be exempted from the vacancy taxes, with all the revenue accruing to the province. The City of Vancouver has hiked their Empty Homes Tax rate and is slowly approaching this limit.

Upshot

An Empty Homes Tax can be useful. It incentivizes better use of property by returning some unproductive properties back into the rental or ownership market. It generates revenue in case people are unwilling to rent out their mostly unoccupied home.

But it also comes at a cost, it can be intrusive and there are always edge cases. And it takes a sustained effort to administer fairly.

We believe that in the case of the Vancouver region the benefits generally outweigh the costs at this time. We can imagine that we might come to a different conclusion if e.g. the rental vacancy rate climbed up above 3%, but we don’t see a medium-term path leading to that.

Looking back at the City of Vancouver’s experience it seems prudent to approach an Empty Homes Tax with realistic expectations. In the City of Vancouver our Former Mayor said that the tax could free up as many as 25,000 empty units for rent, an unfortunate statement that raised expectations unreasonably high and is still being brought up when people criticize City staff for their EHT numbers not measuring up to lofty promises

The bottom line is that clear and realistic expectations are an important part of a successful implementation. It is good politics, and City staff will thank their politicians for this.

As usual, the code for the analysis is available on GitHub.

Wealth vs. Income

co-authored with Jens von Bergmann & cross-posted over at MountainMath

Wealth and income are different things. Wealth is measured in terms of assets minus debts at any given point in time. It can accumulate or deplete over a lifetime and across generations. By contrast, income represents some variation of how much money one makes over a given time period (usually a year). Most people get this on some level. But since both income and wealth deal with people and their money, the terms are also often used interchangeably. So it was that the CBC yesterday reported that “B.C. budget 2020 promises new tax on wealthy to help ensure future surpluses” despite the actual new tax being a tax on high-income individuals.

Here the difference matters for two reasons:

  1. it matters because wealthy people aren’t always high income, and high income people aren’t always wealthy, and
  2. it matters because a wealth tax is quite distinct from an income tax, and in this headline the two are blurred together (fortunately the article clarified).

With wealth taxes in the news (and in multiple Democrats’ platforms in the US), it’s important to separate out wealth taxes from income taxes. Here in Vancouver, as we’ve noted before, our property taxes actually do a pretty good job of taxing wealth.1

In this post we’ll focus on our first point: just how well do wealth and income line up together? Underneath this is also the question of how to measure wealth and what to include as income, we will just go with the standard definitions from StatCan’s Survey of Financial Security to answer this question for family net wealth and family income. The data allows us to divide up the Canadian population into equally sized quintiles (fifths) by net wealth and by income. What overlap do we see? The data also allows us to break out sub-areas of Canada, including the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and British Columbia. So let’s run those too!

First let’s look at how income quintiles break down by wealth quintiles, as assessed all across Canada. How many families in the lowest income bracket fit into each wealth bracket? Are they all the lowest wealth bracket? Nope.

wealth-v-inc-1

 

We can see a clear relationship between wealth and income. But only about half of lowest income families in Canada fit into the lowest wealth category. The same is true on the other side of the distribution. Only about half of the highest income families fit into the wealthiest category. Moreover, there are wealthy (highest quintile) and poor (lowest quintile) households in each and every income quintile. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are clearly poor high income folks and wealthy low income folks. Not very many, but at any given point in time they definitely exist.

Let’s look at some of the provincial differences, remembering that we’re using Canada-wide quintiles. Looking at raw numbers, it’s quickly evident that some provinces (Quebec and Atlantic Canada) are disproportionately lower-income, while others (the Prairie provinces) tend toward higher income. Ontario and BC are more inbetween. Looking at what percentage of each income quintile fit in each wealth quintile by province, the general pattern of a correlation between wealth and income is evident in all provinces. But looking more carefully, a few differences jump out, especially between BC and the Prairies. In BC, each income quintile has a higher proportion of families in the top wealth quintile than one might expect – including the lowest income quintile: wealthy low income folks. In the Prairies, by contrast, each income quintile looks less wealthy than one might expect. In each case, despite the correlation between wealth and income, there are also people showing up in each category.

Flipping the chart around, we can look at how many families in the highest wealth bracket fit into each income bracket. Only about half of the wealthiest families in Canada are in the highest income quintile. There’s even greater diversity in BC, where only about 40% of the wealthiest are in the highest income quintile.

wealth-v-inc-2

Let’s pull out BC from the rest of Canada and run the numbers matrix style. If there were a perfect correlation between income quintile and wealth quintile, then we’d see a bright diagonal line filled with 20% of families in each of the five diagonal cells, surrounded by twenty cells with 0% of families. If there were NO relationship between income quintile and wealth quintile, we’d see each of our twenty-five cells filled with roughly 4% of families. What we see is somewhere inbetween. For Canada as a whole, we see strong evidence of correlation at the margins (for highest and lowest quintiles), but the middle looks very mushy. For BC, we see a strong relationship between being in the top income quintile and the top wealth quintile. But everything else looks mushier than expected. In effect, BC stands out for its generally limited correspondence between wealth and income.

wealth-v-inc-3

What throws off the relationship? Many peoples’ wealth represents savings over one or more lifetimes. So age matters, as does inheritance. Immigration can also affect patterns, with different results evidenced by program (e.g. investor), time in Canada, and wealth accrued in country of origin (Vancouver’s far from the only place where rapid escalation in prices have made millionaires of home owners). Asset inflation also matters, and BC’s rapid appreciation in real estate wealth surely plays a role in its weirdness. As a reminder, capital gains accruing to primary residence don’t show up in income statistics, but they definitely represent wealth. We could cap current exemptions on this enormous tax break for home owners, taxing these capital gains more like income. But we could also just levy an overall wealth tax. Returning to a theme, taxing wealth is distinct from taxing income.

All of which is to say: wealth and income are not the same thing. And it matters. Especially in BC!

As usual, the code for the analysis is available on GitHub.

 


  1. And our property taxes are still too low! [return]

Property Tax Snacks

co-authored with Jens von Bergmann & cross-posted over at MountainMath.

 

Residential Property Taxes have been rising in Vancouver. As always, we’re seeing a lot of sturm and drang about the rise. But we think it’s ultimately a good thing. Why? Here’s three perspectives. From a fiscal perspective, property taxes pool our resources to enable our government to pursue projects and provide for the common good. They’re a big component of how we take care of each other and set priorities. From a social equity perspective, property taxes are directed at wealth, which is highly unequal in its distribution. Property taxes are also – at least around here – mostly a tax on land value, the rise in which is socially produced and largely unearned by any landowner. We should definitely be looking to redirect the massive gains in real estate wealth in this province toward the common good (Henry George for the win!) Finally, from a financial perspective, higher property taxes increase the carrying cost of treating housing like any other investment. They also work to stabilize the market to the extent they counterbalance the weight of shifts in interest rates. In this sense, property taxes and prices are endogenous.

Also worth noting: Vancouver’s property taxes are very, very low. Measured as the “mill rate” – or the rate of taxes owing per $1,000 in property value – the City of Vancouver’s rate is far below most other municipalities in BC (and further afield), especially outside the Lower Mainland.

prop-tax-1

Within municipalities, property taxes hit real estate wealth, but they’re basically “flat taxes”, set at the same proportion to property values regardless of underlying disparities. What’s more, looking across municipalities, there’s a perverse regressivity to property taxes. The wealthy people (e.g. living in Vancouver or West Vancouver) pay lower tax rates on their properties than those generally less well-off (e.g. living in Nanaimo, Port Alberni, or Prince Rupert). Measures like the School Tax, progressively applied to properties over $3 million, only partially counteracts this underlying regressivity at the Provincial scale. Still, we should be looking at more ways to bend property taxes in a progressive direction, and perhaps even use them to provide relief for income taxes. In short, we can definitely make property taxes a better tool for promoting a more fair BC.

The comparison between places like Vancouver and places like Prince Rupert also helps demonstrate the endogeneity of property taxes and prices. Someone owning a $1M property in both municipalities pays different tax rates. The present value of that tax break the property in Vancouver gets above the property in Prince Rupert, assuming the spread stays constant, is $229k. That serves to inflate property values in Vancouver. Which in turn serves to depress the mill rate in Vancouver. Rinse and repeat.

Let’s briefly touch on property taxes in terms of fairness between the City’s renters and property owners. The city has been working on making itself more fair to renters, who make up the majority of its population but find their options for remaining in the city increasingly constrained. Here we want to provide a simple comparison of property owners to renters in terms of rising costs they face. What’s risen faster, rents or taxes? We also don’t want to forget about rising asset prices too! After all, most property owners have reaped enormous gains in wealth that haven’t been available to renters. Here we’ll set aside other benefits available only to owners (including homeowner grants reducing property taxes, the complete absence of capital gains taxation on sales of principal residence, and even the lack of taxation on the imputed rents home owners pay to themselves) and just look at the rise in property taxes paid and gains in property values relative to median rents over the last few years. What’s that look like?

vancouver_price_tax

Here we’ve drawn upon a representative sample of detached properties and apartment condos and used their actual property taxes paid for the property tax data, and used repeat-sales HPI for single family and apartment condo within the boundaries of the City of Vancouver. The rise in property taxes paid by owners of detached properties slightly exceeds, but otherwise more or less matches the rise in median rents over recent years. The property taxes paid by apartment condo owners has had a more complicated journey, ultimately remaining below the rise in median rents (and remember, many of those condos are being rented out!) Overall, property taxes and rents have pretty much kept pace with one another. Property values, on the other hand, are through the roof! Up until very recently, we saw especially strong rise in the value of detached houses. Rapid price appreciation in the detached market (2010-2016) pushed property tax growth higher for detached houses than for condos, who are only recently catching up. The expansion in municipal budgets has driven recent property tax growth, but it remains in line with the increase in rents being paid by representative residents of the City.

Given our low vacancy rates, there is little doubt that rents would’ve risen much quicker without provincial rent control. But regardless, rents have still kept pace with rising property taxes. We still have lots of room to raise our property taxes on all of the grounds mentioned above. We could also use more progressivity in our property tax rates, working to counteract their regressive tendencies. Unlike for renters and rising rents, the research indicates that property tax increases seldom result in displacement of home owners. That said, if property owners feel their budgets squeezed too tight, the province also provides a wealth of opportunities for deferring payments. That’s yet another benefit that’s just not available to renters. But if the province wants to start supporting tenants who need a break to catch up on their rent payments, it might help put a big dent in the sky-high proportion of BC’s residents who feel forced to move.

 

As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub for anyone to reproduce or adapt for their own purposes.

Fun with Real Estate Wealth

Let’s take a moment to talk about real estate wealth! It might be a handy cure to perennial bellyaching about property taxes.

I’m going to pull from the public tables of Statistics Canada’s Survey of Financial Security, a great source of data on wealth in Canada. The data, asking Canadians for detailed information about their collected assets and debts, run from 1999 to 2016 (with the newest data being collected now!) And guess what? They’ve got real estate data in there! So cool. We’ve used this data before to help question the popular narrative in Vancouver that “foreign investment” in Vancouver real estate should be our primary concern (we’ve got a whole lot more domestic investors… why give them a pass?)

Here let’s just look at data on real estate wealth by overall wealth quintile (From StatCan Table 11-10-0049-01) . That means we’ll divide economic families (and those outside of such families) into five groups ordered by their total net wealth. What’s the average real estate holdings in each total wealth quintile, both in terms of their principal residence and any other real estate they might own? First let’s look at Canada as a whole, then specifically at Metro Vancouver.

Real-Estate-Wealth-Canada-Qs

Real-Estate-Wealth-YVR-Qs

Here I’m taking average real estate holdings for each quintile by multiplying the proportion of those who own the asset by the average asset value of those with the asset. You’ll notice I’ve dropped the lowest two quintiles, either because there’s not enough property holders in these quintiles to provide reliable estimates (for Metro Vancouver), or the estimates are consistently below $10k (lowest Quintile) or $100k (2nd Quintile) in all years (for Canada as a whole).

What do we see? In Vancouver, no surprise, we see very heavy real estate wealth. The upper middle (4th Quintile) here looks a lot like the top quintile in the rest of Canada. The top quintile here is loaded with wealth both from their principal residence and from other real estate holdings beyond. Effectively the property tax here is a flat tax on wealth. Hooray! We’re doing a wealth tax! And while it’s mostly flat, we actually do get a bit of progressivity in this tax, both through the provincial School Tax kicking in over $3 million and the Home Owners Grant providing relief toward the lower end.

Raising property taxes on our extraordinary unearned and unequal real estate wealth: what’s not to like?

Hong Kong to Canada to Hong Kong and Back Again?

I’ve seen a couple of estimates of 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong going around (see, for example, Joanna Chiu’s reporting in the Star). So I tried to track down the source, and I’m pretty sure this 2010 survey from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada is it. Having found it, it’s worth noting that the figure of 295,930, regularly rounded up to 300,000 in coverage, was provided as a conservative estimate based on the study. The high estimate (assuming everyone sharing a household with a Canadian was also Canadian) reaches 542,601 Canadian citizens in Hong Kong. I wanted to run a quickie post, drawing out the exceptionally strong transnational (and post-colonial) ties that characterize the Canadian-Hong Kong relationship. For this I’ll stick with the conservative estimate provided.

To provide context, the population of Canada runs at about 37 million compared to Hong Kong at near 7.5 million, so the ties aren’t entirely balanced. But when we look at transnational ties, we’re mostly talking about the metropoles of Hong Kong (7.5 million), Toronto (5.9 million) and Vancouver (2.5 million), which puts relations on more of an even footing. I’ll come back to that shortly!

One of the cool things from the 2010 survey is that it tells us what province Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong last lived in back in Canada (p.  11). We can multiply these figures by our (conservative) estimate of Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong to get an estimate of how many Canadians with ties to particular provinces live in Hong Kong. Let’s compare these figures to the total number of people born in Hong Kong who live in each of these provinces in Canada, as estimated in the 2016 Census (table 98-400-X2016184). Here’s what we get:

HongKong-Canada-Ties-1

Here we can really see both BC and ON account for the vast majority of ties to Hong Kong. Can we zoom in further to the metropolitan level? We can with the census data, though the survey data from Hong Kong is limited to provinces. To solve this problem, here I’ll just adjust the survey data from Hong Kong by a factor reflecting the census distribution (i.e. what proportion of those born in Hong Kong and residing in each province specifically live in the metro area reported? spoiler: the vast majority)

HongKong-Canada-Ties-2

There you have it! The vast majority of transnational connections to Hong Kong appear to be in Vancouver and Toronto. Vancouver’s ties are well-known. But it’s really striking that adding in Toronto, there’s not much left to account for across the rest of Canada. And worth noting that I’m likely understating these ties, both by looking at the conservative estimate of Canadians living in Hong Kong and by only considering those born in Hong Kong currently residing in Canada. Based on survey results, those born in Hong Kong make up the majority (two-thirds) of Canadian citizens residing in Hong Kong. But half of the remainder were born in Canada (see Chart 2). And here in Canada, resident children of Hong Kong immigrants often also retain vibrant ties to Hong Kong. There are lots of other ways to develop Hong Kong ties too. In 1996, for instance, about one in six Canadian immigrants arriving from Hong Kong were born elsewhere.

Regardless of how we measure ties, it’s clear ties to Hong Kong are important in Vancouver and Toronto. These ties could prove even important in the near future, as lots of Canadians reconsider the viability of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” status. But even before the current unrest, all the way back in 2010, it appears the majority of Canadians in Hong Kong “sometimes” or “all the time” considered returning to Canada to live, according to that Survey of Canadian Citizens in Hong Kong.

HongKong-Canada-Ties-4

Adding a bit of data from 2016 Census table 98-400-X2016202, we can see the date of arrival of current residents of Canada born in Hong Kong (as well as the immigration class of their arrival back to 1980). Most of the immigration to Canada from Hong Kong unfolded in the run-up to the 1997 handover of the metropolis from British control to Chinese control and concern over how “one country, two systems” in China was going to shake out. For those living and working in Hong Kong now, that concern is back.

HongKong-Canada-Ties-3

p.s. – If your name is Jens & you’re trying to teach me R, please assume I did all of this in R. For everyone else, here’s a messy spreadsheet.

 

Tax Speculations

co-authored by Jens von Bergmann & cross-posted at MountainMath

 

BC has introduced the Speculation and Vacancy Tax and instructions for filling out the declarations are in the mail. The tax targets homes in major urban centres that are left empty, or that are owned by “foreign and domestic speculators” that “don’t pay [income] taxes” in BC. The tax rate is 0.5% of the assessed value in 2018. From 2019 onward rates increase to 2% for foreigners (not permanent residents nor Canadian citizens) as well as citizens or permanent residents that are deemed members of “satellite families.” A “satellite family” is defined as a family – combining spousal incomes – where less than 50% of total worldwide income is declared (and taxed) in Canada.The portion targeting empty homes follows along similar lines as the City of Vancouver Empty Homes tax, with similar exemptions. Homes are generally exempt from the tax when owner-occupied or rented out for at least half of the year. Importantly, foreign and satellite family owners face additional burdens in renting out homes. Tenants must either be arm’s length, meaning they have no special relationship with the landlord, or, if non-arm’s length, they must be permanent residents or Canadian citizens with Canadian income at last three times the annual fair market value of the rent for the entire residential property.

The tax has been reported to affect about 32,000 homes, about 20,000 of which will be British Columbians with the remaining 12,000 foreigners or residents of other provinces, and generate around $200M in revenue. Unfortunately the province has not shared a more detailed breakdown of how many homes are in each of the category the tax targets, the empty homes, the foreign owners, or the satellite families.

Like everyone, we’re curious how it’s all going to work! Here we want to try and put out some preliminary guesses as to how many a) empty homes and b) foreign owners might get taxed. We also want to think a bit more about satellite families and imagine how possible consumption audits might work. This enables us to make some educated guesses about c) the population at risk of being audited. Surely some of those audited will either have to pay the speculation tax or end up referred for income tax avoidance. Others will have ready explanations for why their property holdings fail to match their reported incomes, likely explaining their lifestyles as products of income volatility or legal gifts (falling beyond combined spousal income). Finally, we want to address the possibility of better rental income reporting as a result of the Speculation and Vacancy Tax. Might there be even more d) revenue gained from better reporting rental income relative to direct Speculation and Vacancy tax revenue? Let’s find out!

TLDR:

We’re guessing from various sources detailed below that the BC Speculation and Vacancy Tax will identify about 8,800 properties as vacant and subject to the tax (i.e. not exempt). An overlapping 46,000 properties owned by “foreign” owners may be subject to the tax if they don’t secure qualifying tenants for their properties. Another overlapping 45,000 households may be at risk of being identified (or audited) as satellite families, mostly living in pricey single-family detached (or suited) dwellings. Around a third of these households will be headed by Canadian-born residents, and investor class immigrants will likely end up overrepresented within immigrant households at risk of being ID’d as satellite families. Metro Vancouver will be most affected by the tax. The collection of income and property value data together with the registration of tenants in rented properties will potentially bring in more revenue indirectly, by increasing compliance with reporting of rental income and reducing tax avoidance/evasion more broadly, than by direct payment of the Speculation and Vacancy Tax.

Empty homes

How many empty homes will the tax effect? Empty homes are hard to estimate. The City of Vancouver commissioned a study based on BC Hydro data to estimate the number of empty homes in the city in a similar manner to how the tax applies, coming up with 10,800 to 13,500 empty homes in the city. In the first year, 2,538 properties were subject to the tax (roughly half declared themselves so with the rest failing an audit or failing to file or appeal). Another 5,385 were declared exempt (some of the exempt properties were not in the universe of the Ecotagious study). It is unclear how much of the difference is due to previously empty homes getting occupied or evasion. It is difficult to use this to estimate the total number of empty homes affected by the speculation tax, but one very rough estimate would be to take the number homes unoccupied on census day and scale the numbers down by a factor 8.6, roughly the ratio of the 21,820 homes unoccupied on census day in the City of Vancouver to 2,538 empty homes paying the empty homes tax.

spec-map1

Overall there were 75,870 dwelling units that were unoccupied on census day in the regions where the Speculation and Vacancy Tax applies. If we use the Ecotageous study for the City of Vancouver as a guide, we would expect 41,725 empty properties using the definitions from the Speculation Tax, and 8,825 properties that will pay the tax. This might be a low-ball, given that the province has more effective means in checking for evaders entering into “fake rental” agreements and that the tax rate is lower (for the first year, and for permanent residents and Canadian citizens that make up the bulk of the affected owners in the years after) than in the City of Vancouver, and that the tax can be offset against BC income taxes, potentially inducing fewer people to sell or rent out their property in response to the tax.

Foreign owners

How many foreign owners will the tax affect? Foreign owners are defined as those owning property without being a citizen or permanent resident in Canada. Keep in mind that foreign owners won’t face any speculation tax so long as they rent out their properties to an arm’s length tenant or so long as the deal seems plausible for a non-arm’s length tenant (right now 37.7% of all secondary market renters in the regions affected wouldn’t meet the specified plausibility requirements, but that’s mostly due to their income being too low and that doesn’t matter for arm’s length tenants). Only if the foreign owner themselves occupies the property, leaves it empty, or keeps family members (like children) housed upon the property will they face the tax.

Ever since instituting the Foreign Buyer Tax in 2016, BC has been tracking data on how many purchases are made by foreign buyers. But for a variety of reasons, this kind of transaction data is a poor reflection of the number of foreign owners at any given point in time. Statistics Canada has sought to better collect data on foreign property ownership through its CHSP program, but the definitions differ from tax policy definitions. For CHSP purposes, it’s the primary residence of owners that matters rather than citizenship or permanent residence status – in other words, do owners live at foreign addresses or Canadian addresses? Some people with overseas primary residences will have Canadian permanent residence or citizenship. Some people with primary residence in Canada will not have Canadian permanent residence or citizenship (this status, for example, covered both authors of this blog post when they first moved to Canada). While imperfect, the measure of primary residence probably isn’t a terrible proxy for who will face taxation.

Extrapolating from the CHSP data for the region covered by the Speculation and Vacancy Tax suggests that 46,110 “foreign” owned properties might face the tax, in addition to the relatively small number of foreign individuals likely registering their properties through corporate ownership. It’s important to remember that there may be a significant overlap between the empty properties we looked at above and the properties of non-resident owners likely to face the tax, so these are non-exclusive categories. But we don’t yet have any good data on the degree of overlap.

spec-map2

Of note, so far we can report that the impact from the Speculation and Vacancy Tax will vary widely by geography. Many municipalities have very few empty properties or foreign owners. Others, as near UBC (Metro Vancouver A) have a lot. Of course it’s worth noting that the housing around UBC is unusual for many reasons, including its student population (often boosting census unoccupied counts and highly transnational). Moreover, Electoral Area A weirdly extends into the mountains of the North Shore, where a small number of empty cabins complicate the picture, but there aren’t too many, so we don’t show that part on the map.

spec-map3

Satellite families

What about satellite families? Brace yourself for a much longer discussion, necessarily delving into the definition of satellite families, the methods BC may attempt to use to audit those they suspect of being satellite families, and the limits of the information we can gather about satellite families.

In common parlance, satellite families refer to families where income earners live and work in one place while children and spouses live in another. Within the family sociology literature, this includes a variety of spousal and spouse-like relationships grouped as Living-Apart-Together (LAT). It also includes adult children being supported by parents who live elsewhere, and minor children who might be living with other caregivers (like grandparents) while receiving parental support. Within the immigration literature, satellite families might also be understood to include a wide variety of ways families work around and across borders, often sending different family members to places where they’re likely to see the most economic opportunities, but involving remittances sent back across borders for the good of the family as a whole. The Philippines and Mexico are perhaps the places most studied where families send workers abroad who return remittances back home, usually with a long term goal of reuniting the family. But other countries, including China and even Canada, have similar traditions. Satellite families create transnational ties, constituted in part through the flow of resources across borders but between family members. Vancouver likely has a lot of satellite family members engaged on both sides of transnational income sharing, both as wage earners supporting those abroad, and family members supported by those abroad.

Vancouver also has a lot of wealthy residents, including both immigrants and non-immigrants. And if there’s one thing we know about wealthy residents, it’s that they often don’t pay their fair share of taxes. In the specific context of BC’s Speculation and Vacancy Tax, the debate over satellite families has often emphasized tax avoidance. Satellite families are frequently suspected of gaming tax systems for their own advantage by deriving their income from another country, leaving it untaxed by Canadian income tax. Income tax, of course, helps to fund many services (e.g. education, healthcare) enjoyed by Canadian permanent residents and citizens. Property tax also funds many services, though as many observers have noted, BC has very low property tax rates. So it’s possible to game tax systems – entirely legally – by one family member working in a location (outside of Canada) where income tax rates are lower than BC’s and paying income taxes there, while other family members buy property and enjoy many of the services of BC, where property taxes are often lower than elsewhere. This is the situation the Speculation and Vacancy Tax is meant to correct, though of course it also potentially creates problems for transnational families who aren’t attempting to game tax systems. It also has no impact on satellite families who rent rather than own. Aside from identifying satellite families, the joining of property data with income data also has the potential to identify tax evasion. As revealed by recent CRA audits, tax evasion among wealthy Vancouverites is probably pretty common.

How many satellite families are there? We really don’t know yet. There’s no good data on the issue, especially since families filling out census forms may, or may not, choose to list members regularly working overseas as resident in BC (and census residence is different from tax residence). That said, we have a better sense of who might be at risk for either listing themselves as satellite families or being audited under suspicion of tax avoidance or evasion. But we have to make some guesses about what might trigger audits.

First, let’s remind ourselves of what data is being collected. The declaration form for the Speculation and Vacancy Tax asks about worldwide income for property owners, including the combined worldwide incomes of spouses. This is attached to property tax data from the assessment rolls. So the tax authorities should have declared data on worldwide income, income taxed in Canada, and property values. Recall that owners with less than half of their worldwide income declared in Canada are considered satellite families. Some people will identify themselves as satellite families. But in other cases, they may provide false declarations regarding their worldwide income. This opens up a variety of auditing opportunities for BC and the CRA. How will they decide who to audit for compliance?

We already know the CRA has identified lifestyle audits as a lucrative means of tracking tax evasion. We also know they’ve got a rule in place regarding rents deemed legitimate for non-arm’s length tenants. We can build on this to explore cases likely to trigger audits if undeclared as satellite families. Keep in mind there may be many explanations for discrepancies between property value and income, including family income volatility; dramatic appreciation of housing purchased long ago; or living off savings, inheritance, or gifts. But other explanations will identify home owners as “satellite families.” Of note, still other explanations may be referred to the CRA or police authorities when they suggest tax avoidance, tax evasion and/or work in illegal economies. So how many people are at risk of being audited as satellite families?

Wait, just a few more methodological caveats! We will try to estimate the number of households at risk of being audited or labeled as satellite families using the recently released 2016 PUMF data. 2016 data is, of course, now somewhat dated, being collected prior to a number of policy changes of interest to what we’re exploring, including (but not limited to) the imposition of the Foreign Buyer’s Tax in 2016, the imposition of the Empty Homes Tax in the City of Vancouver, and the slow roll-out of the Speculation and Vacancy Tax itself. We also won’t be able to achieve a perfect match with the regions the speculation tax applies in, having to make due with using Census Metropolitan Areas. The largest discrepancy is that this drops the Nanaimo area region. PUMF data is based on a weighted subsample, so estimates based on PUMF data are never counts as when using the census, but ranges based on different weightings. In most cases, actual census counts will be contained in these ranges, so PUMF data adds a conceptual nuance we usually don’t see when using census data. At this point it is good to remind ourselves that what we are really interested in is not the census counts but the actual numbers on the ground that the census is trying to estimate, but as usual we will gloss over this last step and be satisfied with estimating census counts. Here we will use the primary household maintainer as a proxy for the owner, and we will ignore dual or multiple ownership scenarios where owners fall into different categories. The speculation tax puts heavy emphasis on spousal income, which is different from family income or household income. That makes it a bit difficult to use census data to compare, we would need another custom tabulation to extract the income of spouses only. For this post we will gloss over this issue and just use household income instead. While family income may be closer to spousal income, we simply felt that household income is a more appropriate measure in the context of the Speculation Tax. People that favour different preferences are welcome to grab the code and make the appropriate adjustments. A related issue is what counts as a “satellite family”, in particular it is not clear if it applies to individuals who are not married or living common law. While only married (including common-law) tax residents in BC would appear to be at risk of declaring themselves part of satellite families, single individuals could also be flagged for lifestyle audits to determine tax compliance, so we include both, but we separate them. Throughout we will exclude immigrants that came in 2015 or 2016, as their 2015 Canadian income may not correctly reflect their subsequent Canadian income. Moreover, we exclude households that have moved within the preceding year, as well as properties worth less than $150,000, as these are exempt from the tax. Generally we don’t report if a category contained fewer than 30 (unweighted) cases.

Home-value-to-income based triggers

Assessed home value to income ratios could serve as a trigger for consumption based audits. But what’s a good ratio to use? For a foreigner renting out their property to a non-arm’s length tenant, the tax requires the income of a tenant to be at least three times the (fair market value of the) rent in order for a foreign owner to be exempt from the tax. We take this as a hint we can use this as an implicit definition of a satellite family. A satellite family may be identified as a household with declared income taxed in Canada that is less than 50% of three times the imputed rent. Why? There’s the expectation encoded in the non-arm’s length definition that housing costs will take up no more than one third of income. And if more than 50% of the household’s combined spousal worldwide income is declared outside of Canada, one is considered a satellite family. To estimate imputed rent we use a gross cap rate of 3%. This test is effectively asking that owner households spend at most two-thirds of their total Canadian income on shelter cost based on imputed rent.

However, this will catch quite a few “house-rich but income-poor” people. Take for example a senior that bought their house a long time ago for a lot less money than it would take today. If their house is now worth, say, $2M, then the imputed rent comes out to be $5k a month, or $60k a year, requiring an total annual income of at least $90k to pass our test. Given the fairly large appreciation of property, especially in the years before the census, it seems reasonable to adjust the trigger by how long the property has been held. The province will have the exact time the property was purchased to fine-tune this, but using census data we can only check if the person lived in the same residence one and five years prior. As we are exempting people that moved within the year before the census (analogous to the Speculation Tax exempting properties in the year they transacted), this leaves us with the five year timeframe.

Given the explosive rise in property values in the year before the census, we discount the imputed rent by a factor of 0.8 if the household maintainer moved into the property between one and five years before the census, and by a factor of 0.5 if the maintainer moved in more than 5 years before – reflecting the roughly doubling of property values within the five years before the census. We call this the adjusted imputed rent test.

Of note: our data is top-coded for dwelling-values above $2M, which can lead to some mis-classification for some properties with very high dwelling values, but ultimately different ways of adjusting for this have little big impact on the high-level numbers. We added an additional filter excluding households with household income above $90k, which softens potential issues around top-coded dwelling values.

spec-map4

Combined spousal income determines satellite family status under the Speculation and Vacancy Tax, so we separate out our estimate of those failing our adjusted imputed rent test (and hence at risk of being audited) by marital status. This yields an almost identical number of single vs married or common law households failing the test, combining for around 45,000 in total. While only married (or common-law) people would seem to be at risk of being labeled satellite families given the focus on combined spousal incomes (“gifts” to children and other family members don’t count the same), it’s possible that auditors will still include single people in the pool of those at risk of being audited for tax evasion and failing to accurately report worldwide income. So we’ll keep both singles and marrieds in the analysis, but treat them separately.

Household Status

We also want to look at other statuses that might matter. Students and seniors come to mind as being particularly vulnerable to audit because of their lower incomes. In addition, seniors may be especially likely to have purchased their homes long in the past, meaning their homes may have done much more than double in value since they’ve lived in them. So let’s see what happens when we separate out these groups.

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We see that in particular single seniors make up a good portion of households at risk of being audited, but the bulk is taken up by working age population that is not attending school. Household type gives a different way to understand the makeup. If satellite families mostly involve an overseas wage earner supporting a spouse and children, do we see a lot of these types of households?

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As it turns out, there are relatively few people who report being married but living as a lone parent who fail our adjusted imputed rent to income test. There are only around 2,400 married or common law household maintainers that show up in lone parent households, making up a small proportion of those failing our test overall. But it’s possible that many respondents filling out census forms still report their spouses as belonging to the household, even if they spend a significant amount of time working overseas, so we shouldn’t count out other married and common-law categories, split between those with and without children, from being considered satellite families.

Dwellings

What kinds of dwellings are people who fail our test living in? First let’s talk about dwelling values. By our metric, the disjuncture between dwelling value and reported income triggers possible audits. Higher dwelling values have a mechanical effect on increasing the income needed to avoid an audit, so we’d expect households with higher dwelling values to be more likely to fail our test. Is this what we actually see?

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As one would expect, relatively few lower dwelling value homes are impacted. But each half a million dollar value bracket between $500k and $2M seems fairly evenly filled by about 4,000 households, jumping to higher number for homes above $2M, especially those occupied by married or common law household maintainers. Those most at risk of being audited would appear to be those living in the most expensive homes.

What structural sorts of dwellings are the people who fail our adjusted imputed rent to income test living in? Condo apartmentsSingle detached homes? Both dwelling type and condominium status will be available to government auditors. Our data only has three dwelling types: single detached, apartment and other. In our focus on owner-occupied dwellings and taken together with the condominium variable, we’re mostly separating condominium apartments from single-detached houses, with the latter showing up either as a single-detached house or a non-condominium apartment (i.e., house with a secondary suite or “duplex”). But there will be some other types of non-condo apartments and other types of structure (e.g. rowhouses) showing up as both condos and non-condos.

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Most of those at risk of being audited would appear to live in single-detached houses, with or without suites, with condominium apartments taking a distant second. It would appear that not too many other kinds of housing will be targeted, or at least we don’t see enough of them to provide reliable estimates of their frequency. But this analysis by itself is interesting in policy terms. As a reminder, some condominium apartments will be temporarily exempted from the tax if they have restrictions on rentals – an out not available to other dwelling types (and also not available for long!) Detached houses with secondary suites have another potential loophole. Regardless of their status, property owners might be able to avoid paying the Speculation and Vacancy Tax on their house as a whole so long as they rent out one of the suites on the property to an arm’s length tenant, pointing toward the categorical flexibility houses with suites repeatedly demonstrate in policy terms.

Immigration

In the context of satellite families we often think of immigrant households. These are the households expected to maintain transnational connections, though overseas income earning may diminish with time (and generation). Of course, non-immigrants can also find themselves earning incomes (or partnered to those earning incomes) outside of Canada. Moreover, we know Canadians of many stripes and backgrounds attempt to evade taxes, just as they also have “bad years” where their incomes may drop out of the normal. So let’s look into immigration by period, including non-immigrants in the mix. How does immigration relate to risk of being audited as a satellite family using our adjusted imputed rent test?

 

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Higher numbers of non-immigrants (i.e. Canadian born) fail our test than any ten-year immigration arrival bracket. Non-immigrants especially dominate the set of single people with lower incomes than expected by housing values, but they also appear in great numbers for married people. This is a striking finding, but also reflects the greater overall size of the non-immigrant population. Looking at immigrants by period, we tend to see what we expect: recent immigrants fail the test more often than more established immigrants. Recent immigrants failing our test also tend to be dominated by married couples, unlike what we see for non-immigrants, but this gap diminishes over time as immigrant patterns come to look increasingly like Canadian born patterns.

Looking at the share of owners failing our test in each immigrant category, as opposed to their total numbers, helps clarify these patterns further.

 

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Here we see that higher proportions of recent immigrant owners fail the adjusted imputed rent test than for non-immigrant owners or more established immigrant owners. Reading shares by period of arrival sideways, the evidence would suggest that more recent arrivals owning homes will likely move toward non-immigrant patterns for home owners the longer they remain in Canada. But culture and wealth of immigrants may vary with period, so there may be other explanations at play as well.

Where are those who fail our test coming from? Let’s take a look, using place of birth! Of note, sending countries vary from period to period, meaning the period analysis (above) influences the place of birth analysis (below) and vice-versa. Arrivals from China, in particular, tend to be more recent. We should remind ourselves that place of birth is not necessarily the same as the place people immigrated from. In particular in the case of China, sizable portions of immigrants arriving from Taiwan and Hong Kong were actually born in China.

 

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Here Chinese born and Canadian born household maintainers contribute the most to owners failing our adjusted imputed rent test. But other sizable contributors to possible audits include those from Hong Kong, other East Asian countries, and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom may seem unexpected as a group likely to face audits, but we have already seen some of the relevant cases documented in the news. Let’s look at share of owners failing our adjusted imputed rent test by place of birth.

 

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Diving into the share of owners likely to trigger audits, we see in all cases that it’s a minority of owners at risk from each country. The uncertainty ranges are too large to sensibly rank the data by place of birth. We grouped immigrants from birth places with fewer than 30 (unweighted) combined cases into larger groups. Nevertheless there are sizable proportions of owners arriving from China, Hong Kong, and Other Eastern Asian countries at risk of being audited. This likely reflects Canadian immigration programs selecting for wealth, like investor class programs, popular in these countries. Comparing investor immigrants living in the speculation tax regions to all immigrants by place of birth, we notice how the investor program leans heavily toward Pacific Rim countries.

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We know just over 22,000 property owners in Metro Vancouver were identified as investor class immigrants in 2018 CHSP data. We also know that the incomes of the investor class immigrants reported in Canada have tended to be lower than for other streams, as confirmed in the 2016 census data below.

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Looking at the adjusted family income deciles, the bottom decile is very strongly represented, with incomes slowly rising the longer the immigrants have been here. While we don’t know how these roughly 62,000 investor immigrants group into households and household types and break up into renter and the 22k owner households, this does provide more circumstantial evidence that a fair number of investor class immigrants will get caught by the adjusted imputed rent audit trigger.

East Asian ownership patterns may also reflect price discrepancies that make Vancouver real estate seem especially cheap to immigrants arriving from across the Pacific Rim. Arrival with wealth, whether from the sale of a pricey residence overseas or other sources, enables movers to quickly purchase housing in Vancouver. Once arrived, they could become satellite families by returning income earners to countries of origin where they see stronger job prospects (and less discrimination), or they could simply be living off of their savings as they adjust to life in Canada as homemaking migrants (ungated version). In this, immigrants may constitute a special case of income volatility in the years after their arrival. And of course let’s not forget that where there is wealth, no matter the source, there are likely to be attempts at tax avoidance and evasion!

Regional Variation

Lastly we quickly check on how properties likely to be declared as satellite families or audited for lifestyle discrepancies are distributed over the CMAs that we consider. Not surprisingly, in terms of sheer numbers, the Speculation and Vacancy Tax is overwhelmingly going to target Metro Vancouver. Almost all of the properties failing our test are in Metro Vancouver. Which isn’t too surprising since it’s where all the people live.

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But what about in terms of share? Metro Vancouver is also where the highest value homes are located and the area with the most transnational ties. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the share of households likely to declare as satellite families or be audited as such looks highest in Metro Vancouver. But by share it’s more clear that Victoria, Kelowna, and Abbotsford pull at least some weight.

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Comparing to Shelter-cost-to-income triggers

Another measure that has been in the public discussion regarding satellite families is the shelter-cost-to-income ratio. Instead of (adjusted) imputed rent, we can take the actual shelter cost from census data. This won’t be directly available to the government for audit purposes, but the government could try to approximate this using the mortgage registered against the property from their land title database.

Replacing our adjusted imputed rent with shelter cost we now can ask that owners have enough income to cover three times their shelter cost. Folding in the Speculation Tax definition of spouses having to declare at least half their joint spousal income in Canada we arrive at a shelter-cost-to-income cutoff of 66.7%. That’s something that’s reasonably easy to check in Census data, just like we did for renters near the top.

The total numbers of owner households failing the shelter-cost-to-income test is very similar to those failing our adjusted imputed rent test, but the populations don’t fully overlap as the following graph demonstrates.

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This shows that the tests are quite sensitive to the definitions, and using these kind of tests for audits will not be entirely straight-forward. Provincial auditors will likely be busy, and will require a robust data-driven audit system in order to be effective.

Rental Income Tax Reporting Compliance

Reading through the requirements one can’t help but think that the BC government will make use of detailed individual tax return data to enforce the regulation. They may be able to use rental income on tax returns to verify the that arm’s length tenancies were correctly declared. At the same time, this should prove a very effective measure to ensure rental income is properly declared by landlords, which in turn forces proper declaration of capital gains taxes in case of a sale of a secondary residence, both of which are suspected to have low compliance. To get a rough idea of the impact, we use census data to estimate the total rent being paid by tenants. The aggregate shelter cost of tenants not in purpose-built, social housing or basement suites in our regions is $3.09B. Here we exclude basement suites because they are affected differently by the speculation tax. Rent is generally a bit lower than shelter costs, because rent may not include utilities. Combined with this, as well as tax write-offs, we assume an effectively 15% of this total is due as tax on rental income. If we take the current compliance rate to be 50%, the compliance rate that was recently estimated for artisanal landlords in London, and assume that the speculation tax increases compliance to 100%, this would generate an additional $232M of tax revenue at the federal and provincial level, which is the same order of magnitude as the projected direct tax revenue from the Speculation Tax. On top of this, declaring rental income makes it harder to evade capital gains tax at the time of sale of as secondary property.

Conclusion

The BC Speculation and Vacancy Tax has been reported to affect about 32,000 homes, about 20,000 of which will be British Columbians with the remaining 12,000 foreigners or residents of other provinces, and generate around $200M in revenue. While we’re not certain where these figures come from, given our estimates above they actually seem pretty reasonable. We’re guessing about 8,800 properties will be considered vacant and non-exempt from the tax, overlapping with 46,000 properties owned by “foreign” owners and subject to the tax if left unattached to a decent rental contract. A sizable 45,000 households may be at risk of being identified (or audited) as satellite families, mostly living in pricey single-family detached (or suited) dwellings. As we note, around a third of these households will be headed by Canadian-born residents, but it’s likely many investor class immigrants will also be hit, and the vast majority affected will be in Metro Vancouver. Finally, the tax will probably generate a lot of revenue indirectly by increasing income tax compliance, quite possibly topping its direct revenue. We’ll be watching to see how it unfolds!

For those interested in more details on our methods, or people that would like to make different assumptions and continue to investigate along these lines, the code for the analysis is available on GitHub.

Ottawa Talks Housing

Back in November of 2018, I visited Ottawa for the CMHC’s National Housing Conference and presented preliminary results from my working paper (co-authored with Jens von Bergmann and Douglas Harris) on Who lives in Condos? In my last blog post (also up at MountainMath), we detailed how condos were used for metro areas across Canada, as well as how we arrived at our estimates. Here I’m following up with video of our full panel at the conference, “Building an Affordable Future for Rental Housing,” as well as our full powerpoint, both made available via CMHC.

My talk runs from the 10.00 minute mark till about 19.15. Other panelists include Marika Albert, new policy director for the BC Non-Profit Housing Association; Catherine Leviten-Reid from Cape Breton University; and Jacob Cosman from Johns Hopkins. The panel was moderated by Zahra Ibrahim. It was a great panel, even though I had a nasty cold and I wish we’d had representation all across Canada.

In case my talking head doesn’t do it for you (with a wicked cold, no less), here are the slides I refer to during my talk (or tap image below).

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Here’s the full program with links to all of the other great panels.

And for good measure, here’s a picture I took in Ottawa outside of the Arts Centre hosting the conference. Ottawa, you’re beautiful! Though you are also very, very cold in November.

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