Pete McMartin: We don’t have enough facts about foreign ownership of real estate

June 1, 2015

By Pete McMartin, Vancouver Sun |

How great, I have wondered, would our concern about foreign ownership of real estate be if the majority of buyers were, say, white Americans?

Less? As great? Would it cause the angst it does now?

Would it be as visible to us if the buyers were not from a visible minority? (And surely the term “visible minority” has lost its relevance in Metro Vancouver by now.)

Would we be as convinced of the ruinous effect on the affordability of our housing stock if foreign buyers of that housing — inhabited or otherwise — shared our language, culture and skin colour? Would we notice it as much?

The answers to those questions are as varied as there are people answering them, and the truth of those answers might never emerge beyond the privacy of a living room.

Some might see it as a cultural problem, and see with dismay the cohesion of their neighbourhood fracturing because of empty homes, or being populated by people with whom they cannot communicate or socialize.

Some might see it as an affordability problem, convinced their children are being priced out of the local market because of foreign buyers who neither pay the taxes we do nor work here.

And some might simply be racist or xenophobic. (There’s a subtler sub-category to that last group, the members of which cram my email account with calls to curb immigration because Vancouver is too crowded already.)

Whatever the reason, or mix of reasons, no other issue agitates Vancouverites like this one. And I think that agitation is all the more telling because of the lack of any hard, indisputable data to back it up.

This isn’t to suggest that foreign ownership of real estate isn’t responsible for rising house prices here to some degree. It very well may be.

I’m just not sure by how much.

How many homes here are bought by foreign owners exactly? How many of those homes sit empty? Where are those homes located? Are their numbers enough to affect the price of housing across the region?

And are there other, greater forces at work here?

Does cheap mortgage money available to domestic buyers have a greater effect on prices than offshore investors? Does the restricted nature of our land supply in the Lower Mainland affect price, or the growing lack of single residential properties? What about demographics? Are over-housed baby boomers who see their homes as retirement vehicles helping to generate the price boom?

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