Incentives in this week’s federal budget for first-time homebuyers crippled by soaring housing costs could worsen affordability woes.
“It’s all about increasing demand for housing without doing much to increase supply, and you don’t need to be an economist to know that if you increase demand without increasing supply, you’ll end up with higher house prices, which is the oppose of the intention,” said Sherry Cooper, Dominion Lending Centres’ chief economist.
Rather than encouraging more buyers to compete for inadequate housing inventory, Cooper believes construction inducements would have been more beneficial.
“The government could have done things to increase supply, like changing the rules around zoning and the Greenbelt to open up more land,” she said. “They could even subsidize housing construction or eliminate some of the red tape and other delays in construction. There are other things that could have been done to incentivize the construction of new housing.”
Instead, the federal government introduced the First-Time Home Buyer Incentive, in which the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation will provide first-time buyers up to 10% of the purchase price of a new construction home, and 5% of a resale. Beyond that, a crucial question remains unanswered.
“It remains unclear whether the government would take an equity position in the home or whether this would act as an interest-free loan,” said James Laird, president of CanWise Financial. “This is an important distinction because if the government is taking an equity stake in a home, the amount that the homeowner would have to pay would grow as the value of the home increases.”
Added Cooper: “It appears they’re calling it a shared equity mortgage, which means you pay off the loan when you sell the house. It may well be that you pay off 10% or 5% of the sale price as opposed to that of the purchase price, so we don’t know the details yet, but one needs to consider whether you’re also sharing appreciation—the equity you have in your home—when you sell it. Or, for that matter, even a loss.”
One of B-20’s biggest criticisms is that it’s burdened housing markets across the country with a remedy tailored for the Vancouver and Toronto markets. The budget’s First Time Home Buyer Incentive demonstrates the federal government is both aware of the misstep and committed to rectifying it.
“The government has also placed limits on the First-Time Home Buyer Incentive, including a maximum household income of $120,000, and alluded to putting a ceiling on the program's qualifying home price,” said Laird. “These criteria demonstrate that this program is aimed at Canada's small- and medium-sized housing markets, as opposed to major urban centres where many households will exceed the maximum income threshold.”
Still, other housing measures in the budget are confounding. The RRSP Home Buyers’ Plan increased the withdrawal amount to $35,000 from $25,000, however, Laird worries it’s short-sighted.
“This program modification will be helpful in getting Canadians into their first home but will also be a burden because the loan has to be repaid within 15 years, including a minimum of one-fifteenth per year,” he said. “This means that, in the years following their home purchase, a homeowner has the additional responsibility of repaying their RRSP.”