Your Thoughts on Government Intervention

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Last week, I wrote a post asking you Should the Government Mess with the Housing Market? If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge proponent of  saving yourself.

This is because I believe that solving problems yourself makes you stronger, not weaker. Having grown up under a totalitarian government in China, I learned that waiting around for the government to come save you is like waiting for an axe murder to cut you free after getting snagged on a tree branch. Yes, your immediate problem may get solved, but you may just end up getting your goddamned arm chopped off in the process.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise what my thoughts are on government intervention.

But as it turns out, most readers disagree with me. Here’s what 356 readers said when I asked them “Should the Government Mess with the Housing Market.”

Of 356 readers who responded, 198 wanted the government to intervene. That’s more than half! Now, to be fair, government intervention (CMHC insurance, keeping interest low, etc) maybe a big part of the reason why we’re in this FOMO borrow-your-brains-out pickle in the first place, so their opinion is not exactly unwarranted. But, will the Liberal’s 16-point REALLY help?

Let’s see what you said:

Alrighty, let’s break down some of your responses. Of the 361 readers who responded, 32% think Cracking Down on Speculators is the answer, while almost the same amount thought Rent Control was it. And as many as 18% think none of these government fixes will do a damned thing. Vacancy Tax came in next at 12% and lastly Foreign Buyers Tax and Double Ending came in at a measly 6% and 1%, signalling the lack of confidence readers have from these minuscule changes.

Let’s talk about your top 2 favourite measures: Cracking Down on Speculators and Rent Control


Cracking down on speculators is definitely low hanging fruit, and an easy target, like this case in Vancouver, where a speculator was caught evading taxes–and subsequently not punished at all.

Nobody likes speculators. These are the people who buy up 8 condos, sit on them, not let anyone live in the damn things hoping to pocket a nice fat capital gain.

These people are just in it for the money. But don’t get me wrong, I’m all for free market. But housing is not like an ETF. If I own a unit of an ETF, it doesn’t prevent anyone else from buying the same ETF. But for housing, which is something people actually need, when people buy it just to sit on it SOMEONE out there is left homeless.

So that’s why two measures were introduced: a capital gains tax on speculators and a vacancy tax on owners who leave their units unused. The first measure is kinda stupid, since capital gains taxes already existed for speculators. The province was simply promising to actually enforce the damn thing. But the vacancy tax is new. And to see what effects such a tax would have, we need to cross the ocean to Jolly Old England. Specifically, to a city named Camden.

In Camden, however, the extra tax didn’t really work. It turned out it was not that easy to identify vacant properties, and local politics prevented them from making that tax too costly so it never really had the intended effect.

Rent Control

Rent Control, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. There are two sides of the story. On one hand, you keep rents affordable, but on the other hand, you decrease incentive for builders to build for-rent only properties. And yet in NY, rent control is still in place because NY wants to avoid a situation where only the wealthy can afford to live there, like Tokyo or Shanghai. So in order to make rent control work, the city spends heavily by giving tax credits to builders to incentivize them to build more units. In London, where rent controls have been removed, the city spends $25 billion pounds a year to subsidize rent for low-income families. Looks like NY city government is definitely getting the better deal.

So I believe these two things will have a short-term effect on the housing market but won’t move the needle too much long term.

Interest Rates

So what will have a long term affect?

Interest rates hikes.

Like the one that crashed the Toronto housing market back in the 1980s.

Now some people will immediately jump up and down and say 23% interest rates are of the past and will never happen again. And to that, I say, Canadians are so maxed out on debt that interest rates only need to rise 1% for nearly a MILLION Canadians to feel the crunch:

And for to see what type of affect an interest rate hike will have on our housing market, let’s take a look at our closest real-estate mirror, Australia:

House prices stall as tougher regulations bite

After the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) took a tougher stance on investment lending which encouraged key lenders to raise interest rates, housing prices stalled in April. Parroting our own government’s thoughts, their Federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison, calls this approach “using a scalpel, not Labor’s chainsaw”.

Which pretty much explains why the Canadian government has not and will not move to get rid of CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) insurance to cause a housing crash.
Interest rates though, that’s another story.

Given that the US currently has an unemployment rate of 4.8% and inflation is ticking up to the 2% threshold, the Fed is expected to raise Interest rates 2 more times this year.

And Canada will follow suit. Because if Canada keeps its currently interest rate while the US one rises, that would kill the Canadian dollar relative to the American dollar, which increases inflation. And since it’s the Bank of Canada’s job to keep inflation in check (and not help out the housing market as so many people mistakenly assume), they will eventually be forced to increase interest rates too.

Which is great news for renters, who can now benefit from the newly-instated rent control. Your landlord’s mortgage rates will go up but your rent is fixed to inflation! And if those amateur real estate “investors” end up having to fork over 10 grand to fix a leaky roof, or their condo fees increase, they can’t pass it on to you.

Until interest rates rise, no one will know for sure whether these the new 16-point plan will cool this insane housing market. BUT if you’re a renter, you can now rest easy, knowing that your rent won’t double even as your landlord’s mortgage, property taxes, and maintenance costs go up.

And as a long time renter, I gotta admit, it feels great. For now, the pendulum is swinging away from the landlords and back towards the renters. So if you’re a renter, now’s your time to take advantage!

And while you’re at it, make sure you gloat a little bit at your landlord. God knows they’ve gloated at you for too damned long.

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27 thoughts on “Your Thoughts on Government Intervention”

  1. Hi FireCracker — Thanks for writing this. I’m very curious about how things are going to work out in Toronto. I’ll be watching closely for updates!

    Maybe it’s just my impression, but don’t rent-controlled apartments frequently suffer from a lack of maintenance? Aka, the owner can’t get his money back through price increases, so his incentive is to spend as little as possible. This results in a bunch of dumpy outdated apartments. NY is kinda infamous for them.

    1. Then the tenant has the right to sue or report the landlord for not adhering to the responsibilities of the Residential Tenancies Act.

      They can let their property fall to disrepair, but hey, at the end of the day it’s their investment. The tenant can always choose to move out, but if the place falls apart, it’s the landlord that get hurt by it the most.

      1. Actually that is the landlord’s MO…they don’t care if it falls into disrepair because they want to push out tenants who are rent controlled. The rules are complex but I think that once the rent controlled tenant leaves, the landlord can possibly raise the rent to market rate. They’ll make renovations then. They ignore the previous tenant’s problems and sometimes purposely make problems to push them out. Here in NYC, the tenants can sue but many landlords are counting on the fact that the tenants won’t have the time or knowledge to do it. Or they’ll just make the repairs after they’ve been sued.

        This whole government intervention topic is very interesting and very complicated. Anyone firmly on the extremes of either side is probably biased IMHO. Yes, we want the free market to do what it does, but some sort of government intervention is necessary. If we the government never intervened, we’d still have children exploited for cheap labor, unsafe food products, unsafe working conditions, etc, etc. The question is how should they and to what extent should they intervene. I don’t know the answer to that question.

  2. I’m a sometimes liberal-tarian but discussing government intervention in the housing market is a little crazy. Without a strong government and strong civil institutions there is no housing market.

    Without a strong government, improving land is pointless because some warlord will just come by and take it from you. Or maybe you are a warlord, in which case owning land is very expensive because you’ve got this big band of baddies to supply.

    Government makes the idea of ownership possible. A stable government which is widely held as legitimate and which has the power to enforce contracts and reduce the assholery of your neighbors by itself makes the land and the improvements upon the land valuable.

    Given that the government lays a heavy hand on the housing market (and every market) MERELY BY EXISTING, it makes sense that the government would want to counterweight the benefits a little bit to even things out. Property taxes maintain the apparatus which imbues the property with value in the first place, so that makes sense.

    In most places, the monetary supply is centrally managed in one way or another. Overall, that seems to have worked out well so far. But that means that some governmental or quasi-governmental body is tipping the scales one way or another on interest rates. But the existence, legitimacy, and value across time of money all comes from faith and credit in the same government, so that seems reasonable too.

    Enforcing contracts is one of the central roles of government. Having standards to ensure that the contracts are legal, moral, and ethical are also good. I think it’s fine that the government does not allow discrimination in housing, for instance. I think it’s good that my landlord has to give me 60 days notice to raise my rent. That’s by itself a form of rent control. I don’t know if it’s legally mandated or just a standard practice. But it’s good, so I’m for it.

    When the grasping tendrills of government intervention come around it’s almost always a question of “how much is reasonable?” or “what is the optimal level?” rather than “is it good or bad that the government is putting it’s fingers in the pudding?” Too late! The pudding is made out of government fingers.

    1. Good point. We do have to have some regulation to prevent everything from dissolving into anarchy.

      I agree with you that it’s more about “how much is reasonable” and “what is the optimal level” but everyone is going to disagree on that. So I guess from a government’s point of view, “how much is reasonable” would be determined by “how much would get them re-elected”. Going after speculators and foreign buyers tax is low hanging fruit. Rent control is more controversial but still acceptable. CMHC and interest rates on the other hand…could be the “chainsaw” they’re avoiding.

  3. “BUT if you’re a renter, you can now rest easy, knowing that your rent won’t double even as your landlord’s mortgage, property taxes, and maintenance costs go up.”

    I don’t think anybody ever worried about that though. Just because a market doesn’t have rent controls doesn’t mean landlords go around doubling rent when their costs go up. No rent control means a free and open market, so if a landlord attempts to double rent he will quickly lose his tenants and fail to fill his suite. That’s the good thing about free markets, you’re free to double your rent expectation, but you have to live with the consequences of that decision.

    I’m currently looking to move in Vancouver and the rental market now is a joke. Vacancy rates are below 1%, anything half decent gets snapped up within a day or so. You basically have to go to viewings with your application in hand, a deposit ready and your references on speed dial. Rental rates have increased an insane amount. Our current one bed rental in downtown costs $1,800 but we’re looking at around $2,200+ now to get a similar unit. That’s how much things have changed in under 2 years. Can you imagine what it would be like if it was 10 years?

    There is way too much demand and way too little supply and rent control is, in part, to blame for that. Nobody ever leaves their suite because they know their rent would immediately increase significantly (like ours will) if they have to move. Many people are paying insanely low rent ($1,000 or less) whilst any new entrants to the rental market are forced to cough up double that or more simply because they’re moving.

    If rent control wasn’t in place people would be more willing (or forced) to move and everybody might have to pay $1,500, rather than many people paying $1,000 and many more paying $2,200. The difference between rent of a tenant who has been in their suite for 5+ years compared to somebody new entering the market is insane and it’s all thanks to rent control. Believe me, I wouldn’t choose to move suites either in this market but unfortunately our landlord is selling so we have to.

    To go back to your original comment, I’d argue it’s MORE likely your rent will double in a rent control environment than outside of one. Anybody who has been renting in Vancouver for many years might be paying $1,000 a month, for example, because the landlord hasn’t been allowed to increase rent to the actual market rate. If and when they do have to move, for whatever reason, their rent will suddenly be over $2,000 per month, of which I am sure they will be unable to deal with. That is why rent control is an abject failure.

    1. I also live in Vancouver and I’d say, at a very basic level, what you’re describing is sort of accurate, but paints a bit of a narrow picture. YMMV, but this is based on having moved twice in the past 3 years.

      1. the degree of competition varies highly depending on your market segment. Once you’re willing to pay 3000$ in rent, availability improves substantially. Admittedly, this isn’t possible for a lot of folks, particularly folks on a single income, but it is worth pointing out that the market isn’t as monolithic as the single vacancy rate would suggest.

      2. while demand is allowing landlords to charge higher rents, the chief underlying factor pushing them to increase rents is actually the cost to own. We’ve talked to numerous people who seemed to imply that we should be at least covering their costs. Usually those particular people are already trying to get significantly above what the market will bear, so they have often been having a hard time finding tenants. Rent control isn’t the core problem though – speculation and cheap credit are. For example, our estimate that is that the running cost of the unit we’re living in (opportunity cost of capital, maintenance, taxes, insurance, etc) is >= 2x what we pay in rent. This was a new build, so rent control isn’t applicable. No one would be willing to suck up this loss if they didn’t expect the ‘value’ to go up and values are mostly driven by speculation and cheap credit at the moment.

    2. “I’d argue it’s MORE likely your rent will double in a rent control environment than outside of one.”

      Nope. It already doubled on some tenants without rent control:

      That’s why they brought in the rent control in the first place. If you’re already in that situation, you take measures to fix it, not just sit there throw up your hands and say “oh well, if I try to fix it it’ll get worse”.

      The idea that your rent would more likely double with rent control than without makes no sense. It might cause people to stay put more often, instead of looking for bigger, better places to rent. But I fail to see how it would double your rent. Even if it encourages landlords to pull the “I’m having family move in”, only to raise the rent when you move out, they’d have to do every single year. Without rent control, they could double your rent at anytime, without pulling any tricks.

      I do agree that rent control is the not perfect solution, but given what the greedy landlords/speculators have been doing the government had to do something to level the playing field.

      1. I disagree. These people can just move to another unit where rent is likely more in line with $1,650. Just because their landlord wants to double rent, doesn’t mean they have to accept it. Unless everywhere has doubled their rent, they can just move and are fine.

        “The idea that your rent would more likely double with rent control than without makes no sense.”

        What’s not to make sense? Here, I’ll paint a scenario to make it more clear.

        Mr. and Mrs. Smith rented a 700 sq ft 1 bedroom unit in the Westend of downtown Vancouver 10 years ago. Rent began at $700 per month. Every year the landlord raises the rent by the allowable 3.7%. Now, 10 years later in 2017 rent is currently at $1,000.

        The landlord decides this is way out of line with the market, which typically charges around $2,000 for a 1 bedroom unit in the same geographic location. The landlord uses the geographic release clause to inform every tenant in the building that rental rates are out of line with the local market and that their rent would all be increasing more than the usual annual rate. For Mr. and Mrs. Smith, this means their $1,000 rent is now being increased to $2,000, the market rate of the area.

        Unable to afford this new rental rate, Mr. and Mrs. Smith scour the listings for a new 1 bedroom unit only to realize their landlord was correct. The actual market rate for a 1 bedroom unit in Downtown Vancouver is closer to $2,000, not $1,000. Not only are they forced to move out of their 1 bedroom unit, they are also completely unable to afford anywhere to rent in the area as the entire market has changed, not just one buildings policy.

        They spit their dummy out and cry to the local government, “how can they get away with this?” Well, because rent control allowed them to pay below the market rate for a decade and when they finally get brought back down to reality they are unable to deal with the reality of the rental market in their area.

        They are forced to move to Langley, a 1.5 hour, congested drive to their old abode, just so they can afford the same amount of space as they had previously had.

        All rent control achieves is keeping rent increases lower for current tenants, but forcing rent much higher for future tenants. Eventually those current tenants become a future tenant and get slammed with a rental increase they didn’t expect. In some cases, where people have stayed in a suite for many years, rent can literally double upon moving.

  4. Tenants already have plenty in their favour (e.g. evicting bad tenants isn’t easy). Rent control has just put more in their favour. It will kill purpose built rental development, which was surging after decades, unless enormous incentives are provided to developers to build them. Nothing on that front from the government yet.

    You’re absolutely right that the real estate market is a loaded gun and interest rates are the most likely trigger to end the ‘debt-gasm’ orgy. Short of that, prices will plateau but remain expensive while over leveraged property owners slowly pay down debt.

    The US may not increase interest rates as planned. While some reports suggest the US economy is improving, the devil in the details may suggest otherwise. For example, job growth looks great, but when those jobs are mostly low wage service jobs replacing high paying jobs, the picture doesn’t look so pretty. Due to globalization, all western nations are undergoing a rapid transformation where most common workers are forced to settle for declining wages and precarious work. As each year rolls by, it will eventually become clear that society is shifting into a neo-feudal type of economy of rich techies/investors/landowners, and majority poor renters.

    1. “It will kill purpose built rental development, which was surging after decades, unless enormous incentives are provided to developers to build them.”

      This is why in the full 16-point plan they mention they would be 1) giving tax credits to developers for building “for-rent” apartments and 2) reducing the property taxes for apartment style buildings.

      Who knows if this is enough, but time will tell.

      As for interest rates, I don’t have a crystal ball (GIRL balls I have, but not crystal ones) so I have no idea, but on the plus side, regardless of whether they raise it or not, the extra cost can’t be passed onto tenants. For the one million Canadians up to their eyeballs in debt who can’t even stand a 1% increase, they better have their fingers crossed interest rates don’t change…

      1. I pray for an interest rate hike. If it causes stressed owners to dump their properties for cheap, I’m ready to buy another property or two.

        1. If interest rates go up, it becomes more expensive to borrow money to buy more properties…so unless you have a huge chunk of cash lying around…or you’re taking on more risk by HELOC-ing money out of your existing properties…

          1. I have a sizable amount of liquid cash available to take advantage if the opportunity arises. I should probably invest it all in the VUN.TO ETF but I’m keeping it in cash while I look for a potential ‘deal’. If I see nothing by 2018, and the market has not taken a turn by then, I’ll re-evaluate options.

            1. Hope that works out for you. From experience, timing the market never works, but if it makes you feel better…

              1. I’m actively looking and will buy at current real estate prices if I find a property with cash flow and potential. In that respect, I’m not market timing. I will buy and hold. For example, I wanted to buy 63 Fulton Ave. but it was sold before I even got a chance to place an offer 🙁 It’s taken months to find a property that suits my needs and now it’s gone.

                Thanks to this blog I invested in the VUN ETF since late November 2016 and have made a 9% return thus far (I love ‘free’ money!), and I hope to leave those funds invested.

                1. Thanks for reading and congrats on the 9% return! (I’m guessing you went 75/25 or 90/10)

                  If you’re investing for cashflow, what are your thoughts on the new rent control measure? How do you get the cashflow you require, if you can’t raise rent to account for rising costs in property tax, maintenance, etc? (not judging, just honestly curious)

                  1. As of today it’s at a 9.40% return. I went with 100% equities.

                    I’m not a fan of the new rent control measure. I think the CBC coverage and a few other viral news stories blew the problem of increasing rent out of proportion.

                    The properties I tend to look at have separately metered units so tenants shoulder some of the more expensive utility costs. The allowable rent increase will offset property tax hikes. Maintenance is a wildcard. Sometimes a lot is required, other times a property requires very little. I have access to friends in the trades which helps to keep such costs down, too.

  5. “BUT if you’re a renter, you can now rest easy, knowing that your rent won’t double even as your landlord’s mortgage, property taxes, and maintenance costs go up.”

    Except if your landlord’s mortgage, property taxes and maintenance costs go up, your landlord may either choose to sell or be forced to sell. The new owner may not want to continue renting to you at the lower controlled rate.

    I’m a renter. I’m not in favour of rent control. It may sound good at first, but it does not make economic sense and will lead to all sorts of unintended consequences.

      1. Huh, seems like Canada has much more restrictions on landlords ending tenancies than we do here in NZ. Here landlords can give notice to end a periodic tenancy with just 42 days notice if the purchaser wants vacant possession. I don’t think there are any restrictions with ending fixed tenancies when the term is up. That just sounds so strange to me.

        Still, it looks like in Canada a purchaser can end your tenancy at the end of the term of that tenancy for a number of reasons, including living in the property personally or using it for other uses. Over time rent control will make being a landlord less profitable and less desirable, so fewer people will want to do it – building owners will probably prefer to convert residential buildings to office buildings or other more profitable uses, decreasing the rental supply.

        So then maybe the tax incentives will cause developers to build new residential units. But that will be costly – as pointed out above, the incentives will have to be quite large if rent control has made renting out residential units unprofitable. How are these tax incentives going to be funded? And then rents for the new residential units will probably be set at a higher rate to take account of the rent controls. Over time, as the rent controls make renting out those new residential units too unprofitable, the building is converted again to a non-residential use and the building owner decides to develop another building to take advantage of the huge tax incentives and to “reset” rents.

        Seems like a very costly way just to get the rental supply back to zero.

        1. Depends on the type of building you live in. The owner of an apartment will unlikely kick everyone out and sell the apartment. With condos owners, they could do that, but then that causes a bunch of condos to flood the market, which increases the amount of supply to buyers and dropping the price…which might be exactly what the government is trying to do to “cool the market”.

          Include tax incentives to make it profitable for builders is exactly what NY is trying to do. But how much is needed and how to raise the money is another question.

        2. As always, the devil is in the details… in the case of a sale if you’re on what call a month-to-month lease, which I assume is what you call a periodic tenancy, if the purchaser requests vacant possession, than the landlord can give you notice to vacate (iirc, it’s either 3 months notice, or 2 months + 1 month of rent). However, they can only do this if the purchaser fulfills one of the required criteria (eg: they plan to occupy it themselves).

          We have two types of lease here – fixed term, which requires you to vacate at the end of the term, and renewable, which renews as a month to month lease at the end of the term. In the latter case, landlords can’t just ask you to vacate because they feel like it, they need to have cause (iirc, this is either that they intend to occupy, you’re a nuisance, or they intend to substantially renovate).

          As to the profitability of landlording – I can see what you’re saying, although again, I think that’s a bit simplistic. Rent control is only one half of the equation and at least around here, it’s not what’s causing landlords to be unprofitable. Landlording is not profitable here because even the market rent is nowhere near what your costs are. Theoretically, from an investment standpoint, you’d only buy real estate if it was a profitable business. If it’s unprofitable, you’d expect that the value of real estate would decline until it is. What’s actually happening is that people are hoping that the ‘business’ of speculation will be profitable and the rent they’re collecting is only to avoid completely bleeding out in the meantime. On top of this, we’ve got this bizarre social thinking that you are a failure if you rent, which, when combined with easy credit, is actually driving prices up, but not driving rents up to the same amount. In a truly efficient market, people would stop buying and there’d be even more rental demand and since it’d all be new rentals, which would not be subject to rent control, they’d be willing to pay higher and higher prices, driving rents up.

      2. As a landlord I’ve always followed the gorvernments guidelines for rent increase. They have been in force as long as I have been renting units, mine were all built in 70’s and 80’s. It’s crazy that a law needs to say you can’t double the rent one month to another instead of common decency. If you are a tenant, the thought of gloating at your landlord is obnoxious. Would you gloat if the government intervened in your hairdressers business making it more difficult for him or her to provide you the services you want and need? Landlords are providing a service, one essential to living. Be grateful and gracious. Show appreciation. Always always strive to have a good relationship with them, this is the best way to ensure you are both happy.
        Purchasing investment properties must be done wisely, recognizing that interest rates fluctuate, so that even in worse case scenario you have positive cash flow.

  6. As a general rule, I’m against government intervention. Things go bad when the politicians get involved. That said, I don’t believe the wealthy buying up buildings and keeping them vacant is particularly free market. Using one’s wealth to essentially build a wall around the resourced people need to live, forcing them into homelessness or “slavery” to a landlord, is just as coercive as anything the government does. After all, the free market is only free due to a lack of fraud and coercion, not a lack of government.

    So that’s why I’d support a hefty vacancy tax of 50% or more on landowners who keep a certain percentage of their buildings empty for over a certain amount of time, regardless of whether or not that’s their intent or not. Let property owners make their money, but not by putting people in the streets and artificially (or shod I say fraudulently) raising the housing prices astronomically. It’s the real estate version of pump and dump.

    If we who work in finance can be taxed at 50% on our bonuses (including my three figure bonuses and the tellers’ two figure bonuses), then people who fraudulently scam the housing market and wreak havoc on their communities should be paying at least 75% of the value of the property in taxes if they keep X % of the units empty for X amount of months. If they are empty because no one wants them, then that’s no excuse and wouldn’t exclude you from paying the tax. Lower the rent, fix up the unit, or both.

    All the other methods of government intervention I would say that we probably shouldn’t do. Raising interest rates I don’t really count as government intervention since the rates are artificially low anyway, with those low rates themselves being government intervention. Raising the rates to what the free market would dictate they be isn’t government intervention. But everything else? I’d say no to most of this stuff.

    ARB–Angry Retail Banker

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