Canada's national housing agency is focusing efforts to collect data on foreign real estate investors by studying temporary residents, including international students studying in Canada, as well as Canadian citizens who live abroad. But it has run into resistance in its attempt to ask real estate agents, developers and lawyers to voluntarily provide information on international clients.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.'s struggle to collect reliable data about foreign real estate investors is detailed in hundreds of pages of documents originally released to Bloomberg under Access to Information and subsequently provided to The Globe and Mail.
The agency's first challenge was to settle on a definition of foreign investor. Its "final definition," according to minutes of a January meeting, includes Canadian citizens whose permanent residence is in another country, along with what it calls "non-permanent residents." They include temporary foreign workers, visitors to Canada and those with no legal ties to the country. They also include the more than 200,000 international students who are in Canada on study visas.
The inclusion of students as foreign investors was controversial even within the federal agency, with minutes of the meeting noting that "there was no unanimous agreement on whether foreign student buyers should be counted as foreign buyers or not." CMHC is proposing to flag international students separately from other non-permanent residents.
The number of international students in Canada increased 36 per cent between 2010 and 2014, to nearly 212,000, according to Citizenship and Immigration data included in the CMHC documents. While the number who eventually apply for postgraduate work permits has risen from 10.9 per cent in 2010 to 17.6 per cent in 2014, "the large majority of students actually do not become permanent residents," CMHC wrote. "This would justify classifying 'student buyers' as foreign buyers."
There is no hard data on how many international students buy housing while studying in Canada, but real estate agents in Vancouver and Toronto often point to the fact that many foreign buyers, particularly those from China, buy housing here so that their children can go to school. "We feel some people, like students, are buying properties instead of renting with money mainly coming from outside Canada," a CMHC analyst wrote in an internal exchange from early December.
The federal housing agency also drafted a proposal for a separate research project that would measure "the effects of non-permanent residents on housing demand." It held discussions with HSBC Bank late last year about ways to collect data that would "allow identification of foreign mortgage applications," along with Canada Revenue Agency, which requires non-resident homeowners to pay withholding taxes on rent and real estate sales.
One of the ways CMHC is proposing to collect data on foreign investors is a pilot project to survey real estate agents and developers about clients who might be considered foreign buyers, starting with Vancouver. The federal agency is also looking to include questions about the residency status of buyers and owners to its survey on condo owners and housing starts and hopes to work with provincial land registries to add data about foreign owners, starting in Ontario.
But it has run up against resistance from the real estate industry, with internal documents laying out that meetings with developers to discuss adding foreign residency questions to CMHC regular surveys of condo sales yielded "mixed results."
"Some [condo] developers are willing to provide the information while others are not willing to provide it," the agency wrote.
One real estate industry organization in B.C., the name of which was redacted in the CMHC documents, told the housing agency that it didn't think its "members would be forthcoming with the information requested, despite knowing the background of their buyers."
The Law Society of B.C. told CMHC that much of the information lawyers had on the identity of foreign buyers and the source of funds used for home purchases was covered by privacy laws. Lawyers have also been given an exemption to the requirement to report financial transactions of more than $10,000 to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, which tracks money laundering.
Three real estate industry professionals also told CMHC that a B.C. rule that buyers report their immigration status on property transfer tax forms was rarely enforced and was only filled out when "a buyer is a first-time home buyer and the value of the property is lower than $500,000, which is rarely the case."