Toronto’s Vacant Homes Tax, a Retirement Warning, and No More Rentals: Weekly Real Estate News Recap

Thousands of Rental Units to Become Condos

When the Ontario government announced a sweeping rent increase cap as part of its Fair Housing Plan, experts warned the measures would ultimately shrink supply, making rents more expensive rather than affordable. They argued that limiting annual rent increases to 2.5 per cent across all unit types would only dissuade developers from creating rental purpose projects – prior to April, only units built before 1991 were subject to such caps, with the remainder priced according to market rate.

It appears their fears are materializing, as a report from the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO) reveals more than 1,000 units once earmarked for the rental market are converting into condos.

It also finds that 6,250 units would need to be created annually over the next decade to keep up with rental demand, which has reached a multi-decades high. And, as the vast majority of rental housing is in the form of secondary suites owned by condo investors, purpose-built unit vacancies are at a historical low in Toronto, at 1.3 per cent.

Jonathan Gitlin, senior-vice president of investments and residential at REIT and developer RioCan, told the Globe and Mail that their recent decision to turn 130 planned rentals into condos is a direct result of the new rent cap rules.

“The legislation caused us to review our rental projects across the GTA. The impact of the legislation will be to mute growth through limited rental growth and enhance risk that will accompany inflation as a landlord will need to absorb increased expenses,” he said.

However, the Ontario government continues to back the measures, believing the rent caps are contributing to overall efforts to reduce housing prices. It is also working to make provincially-owned lands available for development in Toronto, with 30 per cent set aside for affordable rental housing.

Should Toronto Get a Vacant Homes Tax?

Is taxing vacant homes the answer to Toronto’s rental shortage woes? It became a possibility in April, when the provincial government empowered the City to charge homeowners who leave their units or houses standing empty for the majority of the year.

While the tax would discourage speculative investing and return units to rental stock, not everyone is convinced taxing MIA owners is the most effective – or economical – solution. The Toronto Real Estate Board has released a statement “urging caution” and calling for a “measured approach” before moving forward, lest the tax have unintended consequences for homeowners. The board says there isn’t enough empirical evidence and data available to justify the tax.

“At this time, it is not clear that the issues targeted by a vacancy tax are fully understood, nor is it clear how effective such a policy would be, or if it would have unintended outcomes that run counter to the stated City benefit of increasing rental supply,” said TREB president Tim Syrianos.

Among TREB’s concerns are the administrative challenges and logistics of such a tax – would it be mandatory, self-declared, or rely on a complaint system? There are also privacy concerns over how a home’s vacant status would be determined; monitoring hydro and water use is one way to assess whether a unit is dwelled in.

And, while a tax would be a source of revenue, TREB points to the high costs incurred by Vancouver when introducing a similar tax last November– it cost the west coast city a cool $5 million to implement, while only $700,000 has been netted thus far.

3rd Rate Hike Not a Sure Thing

The Bank of Canada has hiked its trend-setting Overnight Lending Rate twice since July to a full 1 per cent, resulting in higher Prime rates and consumer borrowing costs. Prompted by strong economic and jobs data, many analysts believe a third increase by December – and perhaps as early as October – is a given.

However, BoC Governor Stephen Poloz has thrown cold water on those assumptions, stating in his first public announcement since July that, “there is no predetermined path for interest rates from here,” and that the BoC will “feel our way cautiously”.

This hint of trepidation sent markets into a tizzy, with the Canadian Dollar falling a full per cent to US$1.248.

Poloz elaborated that there is simply too much uncertainty at play in the market to blindly move forward with hawkish monetary policy; borrowers and lenders are still absorbing the implications of the previous two hikes, along with a number of new mortgage and buyer regulations. “In such an environment, we simply cannot rely mechanically on economic models, he said. “It does mean we need to use them with plenty of judgement, informed by data, sentiment indicators and intelligence, as we go through the delicate process of bringing inflation sustainably to target.”

Study: Airbnb is More Commercial Than it Claims

In the 11 years since Airbnb launched its massively popular home-sharing and short-term rental platform, there have been efforts to determine just how much the service impacts rental shortages and speculative investing in markets where it is present.

It has been an especially contentious point in Toronto, where available long-term rental stock is at a record low. Legislation has even been passed allowing only principal residences to be posted as rentals – properties that exist solely for Airbnb purposes have been banned.

Airbnb has consistently maintained the vast majority of its hosts use the platform to rent out a portion of their homes, and the company markets its services as a great way for the average homeowner to make extra cash. Most recently, the company barked back at a study from McGill University’s School of Urban Planning, which found full-time, entire-home units make up 6,500 units in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, and account for a third of all revenue.

Now, a new study has been released by The Hotel Association of Canada (HAC) alleging there are far more professional landlords using the service than private homeowners. Keeping in mind that the traditional hospitality industry is a direct competitor of Airbnb’s, the study says only 17 per cent of the company’s total Canadian revenue has been generated by “true home sharing”, while the vast majority comes from entire-home rentals where the owner is not present.

It also found that one in three units are rented for 90 days or longer per year, accounting for 70 per cent of all revenues within a 12-month period.

“These statistics highlight one simple fact – there is far more commercial activity occurring than people might realize”, states HAC’s release.

Susie Grynol, HAC president, says many hosts are using Airbnb’s platform to essentially become “commercial operators”, rather than the true home sharing model it’s meant for.

“A commercial operator is an unofficial term we are using to describe the phenomenon that is occurring in which two or more entire-home units are being rented out on a consistent basis. Effectively, these operators are running illegal hotels within residential housing” she says.

“This unregulated commercial activity has given rise to unintended consequences including the loss of affordable housing, increased disruption in communities and a potential risk to guests, as there may not be any health and safety standards in place.”

HAC also reports that the number of Airbnb units has doubled over the past two years, now accounting for 18 per cent of total accommodation supply.”

New Construction Sales Slip in August

Sales of new construction homes have generally bucked the slowing trend seen in the market over the summer – but the number of newly-built units changing hands dropped sharply in August, according to the latest data from BILD and Altus Group Research.

A total of 795 new homes were sold, with only 114 consisting of single-family homes (including detached, semi-detached, and townhouse segments). The remaining 681 homes were in multi-family housing, such as high-and low-rise condos, proving that more affordable homes continue to drive the market.

However, while sales dropped 69 per cent year over year and clock in at 62 per cent below the 10-year August average, BILD President and CEO Bryan Tuckey took a reassuring tone in a statement released to the press. “One month does not a trend make. Late summer is a quiet time for real estate, and most builders wait until September to launch developments and bring new product to market,” he said.

“We are expecting fall to be very busy and 2017 could still be a record year of new home sales driven by the incredibly strong condo market.”

In fact, the “overwhelming majority” of the 31,749 homes sold this year have been in the multi-family category. This is due partly to their comparative affordability, but also because there are much fewer new detached starts in the works. Unless there is a significant increase in product coming to market, says Altus Group Vice President of Research Consulting Patricia Arsenault, any uptick in single-family home demand would be “stopped in its tracks”.

BILD also revealed new home prices fell slightly in August, alongside shrinkage of average unit square footage. The average price of a single-family home fell to $1,289,298, from $1,316,693 in July, but still well above the $931,506 commanded in 2016.

The average condo size reduced to 859 square feet, from 871 in August, at an average price of $644,327. The average price per square foot is now $750, from $764 last year.

Real Estate Shouldn’t Be Used As A Retirement Fund

Owning a home is likely the largest financial asset for many Canadians – but they shouldn’t treat it as a golden egg to fund their golden years, according to a study from the Ontario Securities Commission titled Investing As We Age.

The OSC warns relying solely on real estate market appreciation isn’t sound retirement strategy – and that boomers, many of whom have seen astronomical returns since purchasing their homes decades ago – could be the most reliant on their value.

A full 45 per cent of boomers (45-years-old and older) surveyed revealed they’re counting on their homes’ values to fund their retirements. The issue, says the OSC, is they may not get as big a payoff as they expect, especially in the face of softer market conditions, rising interest rates, and a bevy of new rules and regulations that could further chill real estate demand.

Credit Scores Improving Among Mortgage Borrowers

Despite frequent warnings of over-borrowing and highly-indebted Canadian households, credit health has been on the rise among mortgage holders, reveals the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The CMHC, a Crown corporation and the largest provider of mortgage default insurance (required by all home buyers paying less than 20 per cent down), has revealed 80.7 per cent of mortgage borrowers have credit scores that rank as “very good” or “excellent”, in the range of 700 – 749, or 750+, respectively.

The number of borrowers with strong credit has been trending up since 2012, when only 78.2 per cent of borrowers were in this category.

That’s good news for mortgage regulators, who have been trying to stem risky borrowing practices and the national economy’s exposure to high debt levels.

Interestingly, credit has also significantly improved in Canada’s most expensive housing markets, where borrowers arguably take on the largest mortgages. The share of mortgage holders in Toronto and Vancouver with poor or fair credit has declined to single digits.

“Despite larger mortgage debt loads, potential risks in these two markets, Canada’s largest, remain muted,” stated the CMHC.

However, the CMHC points out, while there are fewer with poor credit, combined they “represent a more significant source of risk of default of payment and potential losses for lenders than all consumers with higher credit scores.”

While credit score health is strong across the country, Calgary and Edmonton stand out as the weakest, as they’re still recovering from oil industry challenges – they have the highest proportion of low credit scores of the six largest markets.

About Penelope Graham

Penelope Graham is the Managing Editor at Zoocasa. A born-and-bred Torontonian and quintessential millennial, she has over a decade of experience covering real estate, lifestyle and personal finance topics. When not keeping an eye on Toronto's hot housing market, she can be found brunching in one of the city's many vibrant neighbourhoods. Find her on Twitter at @pjeg14.

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