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The latest data battle: 19 days of sales stats for B.C. and what to believe

July 10th, 2016 · No Comments

The province said it would start collecting data on foreign ownership in June and, this week, Finance MInister Mike de Jong revealed the results from, I’m guessing, the first 19 days of collection.

The total of the goverment information is here, which doesn’t answer all the questions I would have had (couldn’t be there because was writing 2,000 words about the forgotten people, renters.)

The data release has, of course, spawned the usual hand-to-hand Twitter combat that has become the norm in these overheated days.

My assessment? It’s another sliver of information, at least as worth looking at as some realtor claiming that every house in West Van is going to Chinese buyers or a study of 170 sales in six months in one small area of the Lower Mainland.

Of course it’s not complete and I don’t think anyone ever claimed it was. It will be a lot more interesting when there’s a full six months, at least, or full year of data. I do wonder if there is a sales burst around Chinese New Year that would show up, since it’s something that some realtors prepare for.

But I don’t understand some of the carrying on about how inadequate it is. Even De Jong said it should not be seen as conclusive.

Did it measure all foreign capital coming in, as critics bemonaed? Of course not. We all knew it wouldn’t because the province announced what it was going to measure several months ago.

But it did tell us how much was being bought by outright foreign investors, which I found interesting.  So Richmond, where foreign investors accounted for 14 per cent of sales, is almost at the level of Australia as a whole, where foreign-investment records have indicated offshore purchasers account for 15 per cent of sales. (Though there, non-residents are only allowed to buy units in new projects, not existing homes.)

And Burnaby was at 11 per cent. That confirmed my sense that it is a preferred spot. Every time I look at one of Jens von Bergman’s helpful census maps, there is a small hot spot of recent Chinese immigrants along Kingsway — I’m guessing in the new condos. One of my Twitter conversants said s/he doubted that number, though it might be a blip, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me there’s been some concerted marketing, both by local builders and those with Chinese connections, of the new condos in Burnaby to offshore buyers.

What I’m not clear on is what happened with purchases made where the owner is listed as a numbered company or the land-title records show a lawyer’s office. When I did my story a couple of years ago on the large Woodward’s tower and a smaller building in Coal  Harbour, I found that, especially in Woodward’s, there were more numbered companies and lawyers’ offices than outright foreign addresses.

Someone on Twitter said those buyers had to indicate whether directors or the buyers behind the lawyers’ address had to indicate nationality. I would hope that happened, though I have no direct proof that it did. And, of course, you have to count on people to tell the truth. However, since there is no penalty for providing the facts, I can’t see what the hesitation would be. (Unless that becomes part of the public record and people who wanted to hide identities are now exposed.)

I agree it would be interesting to know more, although I have to wonder at the level of information some people are asking for: Information on where every dollar is coming from for the purchase, information on whether the buyer pays taxes in Canada, and more. I don’t even know how you would satisfy some of those requests. A new immigrant who buys a house wouldn’t be filing tax returns until after the purchase — will that also become part of the requirement to buy a house, that the buyer has to provide income-tax information forever after?

But then, the arguments seem typical for the way this debate keeps morphing.

Remember, way back in ancient history, I think it was maybe 18 months ago, possibly as much as two years, the main complaint was about “foreign investors.” Then it became obvious that people were calling anyone who looked Chinese a foreign investor, so the target became foreign investors and investor immigrants to Canada.

But the immigrant investor program ended in 2012 and the 1,500 or so still possibly coming from Quebec each year can’t be driving an entire Lower Mainland market that has 50,000 or 70,000 or whatever sales in a year. (If 10,000 sales in 19 days in whole province, then ..)

So the public anger turned towards any immigrant who is here but 1. is possibly sneaking money into the country from China 2. has a spouse working abroad who is a non-resident and not paying Canadian taxes. Now there’s a call for data on all that.

I’m not surprised that politicians can’t keep up with the morphing demands. Or if they choose to answer the easiest question. (First lesson in journalism when teaching interviewing: Don’t ask your subject more than one question at a time or s/he will always answer the easiest one.)

At any rate, this new info is something. A year’s worth will be better.



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