On Rent Control

April 6th, 2017 by Potato

An important principle in our society when it comes to rentals is striking a balance between a landlord’s ability to make money and a tenant’s security of tenancy. A tenant will call whatever place they are renting home, and deserves to have some reasonable modicum of security that they will get to continue to call that place home.

They should not be kicked out because they got a non-destructive pet, because of their skin colour or religion, or that of their significant other (or the very fact that they may have started dating since the place was first rented). A tenant shouldn’t get kicked out because it would just be more convenient for the landlord to flip the place if it was vacant, or because the tenant didn’t welcome the landlord’s sexual advances – we as a society have said that the laws are going to protect against that.

And none of them mean a damn thing without rent control, because all the landlord has to do is jack the rent to a level no one can afford, and the tenant gets forced out (“economic eviction”). They don’t even have to show that that’s actually the new market rent or find a new tenant at the new price. They could jack the rent from $1000/mo to $100,000/mo, evict the tenant they don’t like (for any reason whatsoever), then rent it to the next tenant they do like at the original $1000/mo and nobody in power blinks an eye.

So in Ontario it’s a big deal that we don’t have rent control on properties built after October 1991. All those new condos built in the boom, many of which are serving as rental stock, are uncontrolled and there are essentially no protections for tenants. This is especially important in the midst of a housing bubble, as people feel there’s no option but to buy (no matter the price) if they don’t have the security to raise kids as tenants. We’ve been seeing that in the news recently in Toronto, with the Premiere picking it up this week when the rent doubled on a few people for an economic eviction.

Now, I think the existing pre-1991 rent control is a very good compromise between security and economics: the landlord can charge whatever the market will bear when the tenant leaves, and they get to put through increases in line with inflation (set by the government) while the tenant stays there. So the tenant gets protection, but not the unit. And to a large extent, the government rate is actually about what rent inflation is. I spent a decade in London, Ontario, and watching the rental market* there, market rent inflation if anything lagged the allowed increases. I know the approximate rent a few people were paying in downtown Toronto near UofT, and running those through the increases to today gets to within 5% of the current asking rent in those areas. Other than the last few years, rent inflation has been really low. And when costs legitimately spike (like when our apartment replaced the boiler or property taxes increased), the landlord can apply for an above-guideline increase, which goes before a third-party arbiter.

But, it doesn’t have to be that exact system: we could add enough rent control to prevent economic eviction, but allow double the rent increases for places built after 1991, or have regional inflation rates, or permit any increase to market rent, with the burden of proof on the landlord to apply to a board or ombudsman that that’s actually the new market rent and not a ploy for economic eviction.

Some people on Twitter and elsewhere have railed against rent control for buildings after 1991 – including Ben Rabidoux, who I usually agree with – as it would dis-incentivize building rentals. But I simply do not see it here.

First, there was hardly any building of rentals after the exemption was put in, and we’ve had almost three decades for that to do something. So evidence suggests it was not effective as an incentive, and taking it away isn’t going to change that.

Second, deciding whether to build a rental building depends on a number of factors: how much it costs to build and operate versus how much you can bring in in rent. The current market conditions and base case projections on inflation and financing costs are massively more important to that decision than rent control rules. Having free reign to increase rents only helps you in the scenario where rent inflation increases rapidly and where tenants do not turn over very often and where the government doesn’t recognize the inflation in the guideline increases. For more normal scenarios, the lack of rent control is a nice option (mostly to skirt eviction rules) but otherwise doesn’t really affect the economics of your building — doesn’t sound like the make-or-break incentive to me. Indeed, for most cities over most of the last few decades, the provincial guidelines (and occasional above-guideline requests and vacancy de-controls) have been plenty to keep your units at market levels. So yes, putting in rent control will be a dis-incentive, but a relatively minor one compared to the other costs of building and operating, and is nowhere near something that should out-weigh the social need for some measure of rent control (without which all other tenant protections are toothless).

And the fact is, cap rates are garbage right now. Rent control or not, we’re going to get hardly any serious purpose-built rentals in the GTA simply because people are willing to pay far more for a condo for consumption than a rational investor would for a rental (driving up land and construction costs). There are many other incentives to condo building (including that you get to crowd-source your funding and punt the risk to individual saps), and disincentives to purpose-built rentals (including the property tax regime). Despite the fact that at the moment there is no rent control on the books for future rental units, I’m amazed that there are any being planned in this environment, and I’m sure that there is a story about back-room dealing with the city to have made that happen anyway.

So I say bring on rent control for buildings after 1991: as it is for others, or a weaker compromise form if necessary, but something to provide more security of tenancy than the current economic eviction free-for-all.

* – note, there are no good data sources on market rents that I know of. Everyone complains about CMHC’s because it only tracks large apartment buildings, which tend to be older. Many rentals don’t show up on MLS so the realtors don’t have a good picture, either.

Public Transit Tax Credit Axed

March 23rd, 2017 by Potato

In yesterday’s federal budget, one of the changes was eliminating the public transit tax credit, which looks like will be effective July 1.

For many people in Toronto living the car-free life, a metropass is a no-brainer, tax credit or no. If they live downtown they’re on and off streetcars and buses pretty much any time they leave the house shoebox.

For commuters, it’s not so clear-cut: metropasses are expensive. By signing up ‎with a discount through your payroll (if your employer offers it), they’re $129/mo, and $134 if you sign up for the yearly discount plan on your own (and over $146 a la carte).

With the tax credit, these are effectively 20% cheaper, so best case, a metropass only costs ‎$103.20, or $1238.40/year, and maybe as much as $1401/yr. With tokens (or a presto fare) now $3, you’d have to take at least 413 trips to make it worthwhile to choose a pass instead, maybe as many as 467 in the year if you pay full price each month. How many days will you commute to work? There are two trips each day you go to work and 365 days in a year, but with weekends, vacations, holidays, and likely a few sick/work-from-home days, you’ll likely have about 450-460 one-way trips for work.

‎So with the tax credit, a metropass is financially worthwhile — though not by very much, considering you do have to commit to it to get a discount, and not lose your cards/receipts to claim the tax credit. But it is more convenient than tokens, and opens up the option to take the TTC for non-work-related trips.

Without the tax credit, even the cheapest metropass option needs nearly 500 trips to break even. That’s not totally out of the realm of possibility — just a few extra non-commuting trips per month to do it. But I know in my case I probably only use the TTC 10 or 12 times a year outside of work purposes, plus another dozen or two trips on it for convenience when downtown (e.g., to take the bus or streetcar all of three stops to grab lunch at work) — walking-distance trips that I would not bother with transit if it weren’t free anyway (and often don’t if there isn’t a streetcar or bus in view).

So without a tax credit, unless the TTC changes its pricing scheme in response (which I doubt will happen), I’ll be unsubscribing from the automatic metropass purchases.

Aside from deciding how to respond to it in my own life, I’m not sure what to think of the move: it does make more sense to simplify things and just directly fund transit, especially given how many people have had to dig up receipts to prove their claim. However, in practice I highly doubt that the TTC will adjust metropass pricing (or soon presto monthly pricing) to compensate‎ for the loss of the tax credit, even if they get more direct funding, which means more people like me will make the decision to abandon the stable funding of metropass subscription programs and move to paying by the trip. That, in turn means taking transit becomes a visible, painful cost. And as for simplifying the tax system, there are a other tax credits out there that could have been targeted over (or with) this one.

The BC GVA Tax

July 28th, 2016 by Potato

Hard to miss the news out of BC this week as a surprise tax on foreign purchasers of Vancouver-area real estate was launched, along with new data showing that foreign money in BC real estate is actually quite substantial.

It’s hard to say what this will mean in the near-term: will foreign money find a loophole and keep pouring in? Will Vancouver crash while the firehose of hot money shifts to Toronto and Victoria? Will 15% prove to be no kind of barrier considering that prices have gone parabolic this last year, and how desperate some of the hot money is to leave? Indeed, that last point had been made often enough before this news on the high prices and risk of a crash in Vancouver — “so what if it crashed even 75%, walking away with $500k clean is better than losing all $2M” people would argue.

No Grandfathering

The tax takes effect next week — a good move so we don’t see a spike in sales looking to beat the change, as we have with long-anticipated CMHC changes in the past. However, one strange aspect is that there’s no grandfathering in: deals that were already in the works that close after Aug 2 will have the tax applied.

For some people, that’s going to be exceptionally painful: not all foreign purchasers are wealthy oligarchs skirting capital controls. A newly recruited UBC assistant professor coming up from the US who happened to buy a place at the wrong time is going to have a huge cash call at closing soon, or will have to forfeit their deposit to walk away from the deal if their lawyer can’t argue force majeure.

Normally when a tax such as this is put into place there’s a grandfathering provision, where people who had already made deals under the old rules get taxed according to the old rules. Whether this lack of grandfathering is a bug or oversight from the rushed nature of this tax or a deliberate feature is another question.

How could it be a feature, you ask? Well, this tax is not so much about raising revenue or equalizing opportunities in the market so much as it is a psychological message. I even saw (though I didn’t keep the article to link) a BC official say that if this tax succeeds in its mission it won’t collect a single dollar — it’s intended to run foreign money out of Vancouver, not just tax it. And it does this in a flashy, surprising, attention-grabbing way. By sucker-punching a few deals in progress it will sacrifice a few innocent bystanders and create huge resentment and awareness amongst foreign buyers (and their local realtors) that BC is not a place to be making deals you can’t afford to have go sour. It will help address that sticky notion that Canada is a safe place to park (or in the parlance, launder) money, with stable, reasonable government that is gun shy on meaningful interventions.

Indeed, if there’s any good to come out of this, it will be the anecdotes from this (and from the Urbancorp mess in Toronto) reminding buyers that there is significant risk to “investing” in real estate, especially with long-duration pre-construction contracts at massive multiples of rent where anything can happen between when you sign and when you take delivery. Hopefully this pain will resonate for a generation, like Nortel did for reminding equity investors in Canada that risk exists. Your grandchildren will start saying that “real estate can only go up” and the neighbour will over-hear and shout over the fence “the BC tax on foreigners! Fly, you fools!”

And yes, there’s also the “they should’ve” arguments that draw away from the impending martyrdom — no “regular” person should be buying pre-construction, that’s a playground that by all rights should be restricted to accredited investors who can afford the risks and delays (of which a 15% surprise tax is actually not the worst thing that could have happened). And junior UBC profs and other people coming in to actually live in the city should have waited until they got their permanent residency status before buying (and rented even then, given the price-to-rent insanity in the city). But that’s cold comfort to people who face a large, surprise tax because of a lack of a simple grandfathering clause (and a tax that’s a cash call at that — no word yet that they will be able to roll this into a mortgage).

A Clear Message
"Get Out" scene from Terminator

What Next for the Bubble?

At the same time as the tax was in the news, CMHC finally woke up and labelled BC as having “problematic conditions.”

What effect will all this have on the bubble? Hard to say. Bubbles are driven by the madness of crowds. On the one hand there are reports of locals trying to back out of deals on the news of the tax — the existence of the tax has shattered their confidence in the meme that rich foreigners will continue to drive the price of property up to something on par with Monaco or New York. If confidence in “infinity” as the upper bound to GVA house prices has indeed been shattered, then that alone may help the market come back to earth regardless of what happens with HAM and whether the tax actually changes anything on that side of the equation. However, Vancouver in particular has been astoundingly immune to the forces of reality (WMAGNFARB), and eschatology is a scary and imprecise business. Plenty of bubbles have caught second and third winds (and the GVA is at least on its third wind now); some have “melted” while others were “like someone flicked off the lights.” Even that second type takes time to appreciate as it plays out in real time — RE does move very slow, and even what we call a “hard stop” in the history books is still several months of uncertainty in the present.

As for the GTA, it would not surprise me if enough people will believe that HAM will flood the 416 instead, driving the parabola for another year or so to apogee.

These things take time to sort out, and in the meantime my core message remains to rent and avoid the whole mess.

Liberal Win and Pestering my MP Early

October 20th, 2015 by Potato

I like to write my MP and MPP whenever a big topical issue comes up that I’m passionate about. Some things aren’t topical, but could still use attention. Now that we have ousted the Conservatives, I think it’s as good a time as any to just congratulate my new MP on his win, and send him a letter to know what’s on the mind of one of his constituents as he plans out the next ~5 years of his life. Please feel free to pull whatever parts of this letter out that you like and write your own MP.

Dear Dr. Tan

Congratulations on your victory! I’m very happy to be represented by a fellow scientist in my riding, and to hopefully see some positive change from a Liberal majority in Parliament.

As you plan out your priorities for creating new legislation, I wanted to share my thoughts on issues that weren’t central planks of the election platform. I am myself trained as a scientist, and in addition write as an expert on personal finance, so those fields are my primary areas of interest.

The election platform included a promise to roll back the TFSA contribution limit to $5,500/yr with indexing to inflation, which I agree with. I believe that inflation-indexing is a key component of good policy. Many of our government programs are indexed to inflation so that they continue to remain relevant and fair without the need for constant tinkering by the government. However, the Canada Education Savings Grant and the Canada Learning Bond for low-income families are not indexed, and have not increased in value since their introduction. Adjusting these programs to include inflation-indexing would help keep them relevant for the future.

The Canada Learning Bond could use additional improvements. The current take-up rate of this program is embarrassingly low. There is a group here in Toronto (the Omega Foundation) whose sole mission is to help people who are eligible for the CLB apply for it. Given that low-income Canadians often face challenges in navigating bureaucracy, changing the CLB to include automatic enrollment with a turn-key default investment (that individuals could opt out of) would go a long way to improving the usage of this program, and help better position the children of low-income Canadians to enroll in post-secondary education.

I have been a proponent for a higher marginal tax rate beyond the current top bracket, and I was glad to see the Liberals include that in the election platform. However, the highest effective marginal tax rate is not on Canada’s wealthiest, but on our poorest: an individual on GIS faces a 50¢ clawback in their benefits for each dollar of income earned, on top of any income taxes. Finding exactly the right balance between clawing back the benefit as it no longer becomes necessary and not overly disincentivizing work or drawing from an RRSP/RRIF is difficult, but I believe that 50% is too steep. I would suggest altering the initial clawback level to a slightly lower income level, and decreasing the degree of clawback to something more like 35-40%. Contrarily, OAS recipients face a clawback of just 15¢ per dollar of income earned above a very generous threshold.

Along the same lines, CMHC could use many reforms to make the availability and cost of high-ratio mortgages more counter-cyclical. One suggestion in particular would be to add regional price-to-income or price-to-rent adjustments to the minimum down payment to help prevent future housing bubbles, and ensure that CMHC is able to serve those regions that most need it while sparing those regions with functioning rental markets or escalating prices the self-defeating aspect of high-ratio mortgages.

As someone trained as a scientist, who currently supports researchers, I also want to express my belief in the importance of basic and health research, and to stress that funding for the Tri-Council agencies (NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC) has not kept up with inflation under the former Harper government. It sounds as though you and your colleagues do believe in the importance of science and evidence, and will be making moves to help in this regard, but do remember that there is a lot of “back-filling” to do before we can begin to make research a renewed priority for Canada.

Finally, as a Torontonian and daily commuter, I appreciated the promise to work with the city to develop more transit infrastructure. The ability to move people around has lagged far behind the population growth the city has experienced, and it will take a lot of work to not only catch up, but get ahead and build spare capacity for the future. So when presented with options, build all of them. Downtown relief. Sheppard and Queen subways. Light rail, heavy rail, high-speed regional rail. All of it is needed now or will be soon enough.

Sincerely, Potato

And finally, a Harper-is-gone happy dance. I know the Liberals will screw up at some point, or we’ll disagree on something and I’ll get angry. But for now it feels good.

We Have TFSAs Now: Lose the HBP

September 18th, 2014 by Potato

A little while ago Rob Carrick idly wondered on his facebook page/discussion group if the home buyer’s plan (HBP) was a good idea. In case you’re not aware, the HBP is one of the few ways you can take money out of your RRSP without paying tax on it: you can pull up to $25,000 out as a first-time buyer, and repay it over the next 15 years. The HBP primarily accomplishes two things.

1. It lets people contribute to their long-term (retirement) savings with an “out” to use those funds for a down payment on a house/condo. This way they can save for the future without having to plan what will be house funds and what will be retirement funds.

2. It lets people get a tax refund on their down payment that they can also use on the house right away, effectively borrowing from their future selves. In the short term, it’s an incentive to buy.

On top of this, it has a psychological effect: home ownership and post-secondary education are the only sanctioned reasons for borrowing from your RRSP. Add how irrational people can be about taxes and tax deductions, and it’s a bit of a sacred cow. In the right light (octarine?) it looks like the government encouraging buyers to reach for as much real estate as they can, using everything at their disposal (including their RRSP).

With TFSAs in place now though the first point is well taken care of by that tax shelter: you can easily throw all your long-term savings in there as a young person, and if you need to raid them for a down payment (or whatever) then you can, even in excess of $25,000. Plus it’s already set up to be indexed to inflation so we won’t have to worry about future whining that the HBP isn’t big enough. As for point two, I really don’t think we need any more tax incentives or holiness attached to housing, so doing away with the HBP in favour of encouraging TFSA use would suit my politics just fine.

To be fair, this may need a few years for transition, and would present a bit of a savings conundrum to people who get employer RRSP top-ups, but I find it hard to feel that’s a major flaw in my plan. Let’s simplify the RRSP that one extra step, and phase out the HBP.