Our neighbors to the north this summer imposed a 15 percent property-transfer tax on foreigners buying real-estate purchases in metropolitan Vancouver. An unscientific online poll suggests that would be popular here, as well.
Earlier this month, I created an online poll asking readers if they favored a Vancouver, B.C.-like tax on foreign buyers of residential property. The results were unscientific but resounding: More than 68 percent of respondents favored it.
The action by the British Columbia government came in August, imposing on foreigners a 15 percent property-transfer excise tax for real-estate purchases in metropolitan Vancouver.
Long an expensive city, Seattle’s northern neighbor has in recent years become the hottest real-estate market in North America.
Macleans, the Canadian news magazine, reported in May, “In Vancouver, and increasingly Toronto, fear abounds that Chinese money has helped inflate a property balloon of Hindenburg proportions, driving house values out of reach for even well-off professionals, while raising the risk of a crash at the first sign of adverse conditions.
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“Yet the self-same conditions are adding handsomely to the net worth of millions of homeowners, and supporting a constellation of housing-related industries, from real estate sales to interior decoration.”
The benchmark price for a single-family house in Vancouver was nearly $1.2 million in June, up nearly 39 percent over the past year. (All amounts are in U.S. dollars).
In a five-week period during the summer, $676 million in foreign cash was spent on metro Vancouver real estate, representing 10 percent of all purchases. The suburb of Richmond saw foreigners making up double that percentage.
Considering that in 2014, the most recent data available, median household income in Vancouver was $57,407, it’s no wonder residents worry about being priced out of ever buying a home. They can’t compete with all-cash offers by Chinese buyers in an ever-escalating price spiral.
Early evidence shows the tax is driving away some foreign buyers.
So where will they go?
The bad news, or the good news depending on where you sit, is here.
My colleague Mike Rosenberg reported that metropolitan Seattle is now the No. 1 U.S. market for mainland-Chinese homebuyers. China’s largest real-estate site for buyers looking in North America, Juwai.com, shows Seattle outpacing Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, the other top contenders.
Anecdotal evidence from real-estate agents, especially on the Eastside, is also ubiquitous. Buyers can range from Chinese who want to live here to murky LLCs parking cash in a safe haven that offers good returns in a slow-growth world.
The median price for a single-family house is $630,000 in Seattle and $538,000 in King County, as of September. If we haven’t (yet) inflated a Hindenburg, rapidly rising prices and affordability are among the most incendiary subjects here. At the same time, for buyers with means, Seattle is a bargain compared with Vancouver and many other coveted places.
Which brings me back to the results of that (unscientific) poll.
Should Seattle or Washington follow Vancouver’s lead? Whatever the poll respondents think, the reality is more complicated, as I’ll soon explain.
The city and county are prohibited from levying a foreign-buyers tax, noted Alan Durning of the independent, nonprofit Seattle think tank Sightline Institute: “Cities and counties can only levy taxes the state explicitly authorizes them to impose. Local real-estate excise taxes are already defined and limited by state law, and Seattle and King County already use their full authority.”
Hugh Spitzer, a professor of constitutional law and government at the University of Washington School of Law, told me that doing so at the state level is “plausible but it would face an uphill battle in the courts.”
One impediment would be that state law requires excise taxes to be based on “a reasonable basis for distinguishing between one buyer and another.” Also, the Supreme Court has held that states and localities can’t make foreign policy, another ground for challenge.
Finally, the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment would make such a tax tenuous. “Foreigners legally in the U.S. have this protection,” Spitzer said. They can’t be treated differently.
Indeed, although Canadian law and provincial authority are different from ours, Vancouver’s tax is facing a class-action lawsuit to overturn it.
I brought the issue up with Peter Orser, director of the UW’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies and former CEO of the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. He said a flood of foreign money “creates a disproportionality; investment is not tied to a jobs-housing balance, and it concerns me.”
But he also feared unnecessary taxing and regulating.
“The solution is to respond to the demand, not to squash it,” he said. Too many initiatives are tied to slowing demand and putting job growth at risk.
“Most cities in North America would give their eye teeth to be Seattle. The last thing you want to do is pour cold water on that economic engine,” Orser said.
He pointed to Mayor Ed Murray’s HALA affordability agenda, Sound Transit 3 linking areas with less expensive homes to job centers, and the city’s affordable-housing levy as constructive responses.
“We need to harness the engine to create solutions as opposed to dismantling the engine,” Orser said.
Seattle, it’s also worth recalling, has an unfortunate history with anti-Chinese actions, including expelling Chinese workers and prohibiting property ownership.
On the other side of the ledger, U.S. Rep. (later senator) Warren Magnuson of Washington authored the 1943 law that bears his name, repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That allowed Chinese immigrants and some Chinese living here to become citizens. But states could keep property-ownership bans in place until subsequent legislation in 1965.
Both the city and state have long since become known for welcoming Chinese, minting distinguished Chinese Americans, and being visited by Chinese dignitaries, most recently President, Xi Jinping, in 2015.
Our relationship with China plays a big role in the region’s prosperity and economy, a reality underscored this past week by air carrier China Southern’s big order for Boeing Dreamliners and a Chinese conglomerate’s purchase of 10 local golf courses. Our vulnerability to a Chinese bubble is real. But Vancouver doesn’t seem to offer a realistic model.