Homeownership: The disappearing dream - MoneySense

Homeownership: The disappearing dream

What needs to be addressed to increase homeownership: market sustainability or affordability?

(Illustration by Sébastien Thibault)

(Illustration by Sébastien Thibault)

In election 2015, one of the most hotly contested financial issues has been the proposed changes to the Home Buyers’ Plan—the federal program that lets first-time buyers borrow money from their RRSPs to purchase a house, without tax penalty. The Conservatives promise to increase the HBP limit from $25,000 to $35,000, while the Liberals pledge to relax HBP rules so it also becomes available to home buyers facing challenging circumstances—such as job relocation, the death of a spouse or divorce. But which initiative better serves Canadians?

The Liberals’ plan wouldn’t change the HBP maximum withdrawal limit of $25,000—and some call that a big mistake. “Over the years the Home Buyers’ Plan has failed to keep pace with rising home values,” says Randall McCauley, head of federal affairs for the Canadian Real Estate Association.

First introduced in 1992, there’s been only one increase to the HBP withdrawal limit—when it jumped 25% from $20,000 to $25,000 in 2009. But during that same period, housing costs more than doubled: In 1992, the average home price in Canada was $149,864, whereas it was $320,020 in 2009. By August 2015, the average home price jumped to $433,367—a 189% increase from 1992 prices.

Still, some are worried the Conservative plan will only fuel already unsustainable prices. “Encouraging households to invest more at a time when housing is widely believed to be hugely overvalued would create even greater imbalances in the economy,” says David Madani of Capital Economics.

But the question remains: Is the real problem market sustainability—or housing affordability? Even as detached homes in Toronto and Vancouver sell for close to $1 million, on average, analysts are reminding us that Canada’s two hottest markets are anomalies.

“The federal government doesn’t customize policy to correct two hot markets,” says
McCauley, noting that data show housing in the rest of the country is correcting or stabilized. While he supports the Liberal plan, he says the Conservative plan gets at the root of the problem by “effectively addressing the erosion of purchasing power.”