Flawed Tax Study Fans More Fearmongering About Canada’s Housing Crisisadmin September 30, 2021 0 COMMENTS
OnePacificNews, September 30, 2021, Wednesday
By Ng Weng Hoong @WengCouver
What is causing Canada’s seemingly unsolvable housing woes?
While many Americans and Europeans fear immigrants and foreigners for crime, terrorism, and job losses, Canadians increasingly view competition for housing from outsiders as their biggest existential threat. This uniquely Canadian perspective of foreign capital as a threat to the country’s well-being tied to housing was incubated in Vancouver over the past decade. Even those who look like outsiders, namely Canadians of Asian descent (1) have become suspect.
Housing was a hotly debated issue in the September 20 Federal election, with foreign money again cited as a major cause of Canada’s unaffordability crisis. For the first time, housing became a top priority in the electoral pledges of the country’s three major political parties.
In recent months, influential journalists Ian Young and Sam Cooper have rekindled Canadian fears about foreign capital, particularly from Asia. For over a year, their foreign-capital narrative was undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 when housing prices continued hitting record highs despite the sharp plunge in international travel and economic activities. The COVID-induced economic recession was further proof that Canada’s housing markets have been fuelled by a multitude of factors, not just by immigrants and their foreign capital.
Mr. Young, the Vancouver correspondent for the South China Morning Post (SCMP), is a crowd favourite with his consistent messaging (2) that “Vancouver’s unaffordability is/was very much due to foreign money. Chinese money specifically.” The Australian national of Chinese descent worked in Hong Kong and London, UK before relocating to Vancouver in 2010.
Mr. Cooper, a Canadian investigative reporter with Global News, has been pushing a more sinister view of Chinese immigrants and their money, culminating in his best-selling “Wilful Blindness” book released in May. Held together mostly by anonymous sources and unsubstantiated claims, it reads like a fast novel about how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its supporters have infiltrated Canada to create the housing crisis by laundering money through Metro Vancouver’s real estate market and casinos. See my review (3) of his book.
Over the past decade, Metro Vancouver housing prices have been driven sharply higher by a combination of factors including Canada’s loose monetary policy, quantitative easing by the world’s central banks, the commodities boom, economic growth, among many others listed here (4). Neither Mr. Young nor Mr. Cooper has shown any interest to investigate the role of economic forces in the housing market.
Exhibit 1. Factors driving Vancouver’s housing prices
On August 30, Mr. Young’s stock hit a new high when he reported that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) finally replied to his freedom-of-information request submitted in 2016 about its 1996 study that rich immigrants, mostly from Asia, paid very little taxes.
“A whistleblower auditor said the study was covered up in 1996. CRA refused to acknowledge it existed. But it did, and today @SCMPNews publishes the results on the anniversary of my August 30 2016 ATIP request,” he tweeted (5). ATIP stands for Access to Information Act or the Privacy Act.
He reported (6) that CRA auditors had produced a “secret investigation linking millionaire migration and suspected tax cheating to high home prices in Vancouver, now one of the world’s most unaffordable cities.”
The story went viral as it fed into a long-held belief that rich Asian immigrants flooded into Metro Vancouver in the 1990s and laid the foundation for the region’s housing crisis. David Ley provided the scholarly basis for this belief in his 2010 book, “Millionaire Migrants” (7) when he was an academic at the University of British Columbia. Mr. Young and a handful of journalists regularly cite the since retired Mr. Ley to sell their narrative that mostly Asian money, encouraged by government policies, created Canada’s housing crisis.
Mr. Young’s version of the CRA study drew instant endorsement from excited journalists in the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, Global News, CBC, CKNW, Better Dwelling and other Canadian media outlets. In follow-up interviews on talk shows and with the print media, he was largely feted. He was also praised by David Mulroney (8), a former ambassador of Canada to China, for his “brilliant reporting…on one of the most disastrous policy failures of our time,” and by rising political star Brad West (9), the Port Coquitlam mayor, who said Canadians “owe a debt of gratitude to Ian Young for discovering this in his dogged reporting.”
On Twitter (10), Mr. Young mused that had the 1996 study been released earlier, policy makers would have been better informed about “the role of (foreign) money on our housing unaffordability crisis.” It implies that Canada might have taken steps to deal with foreign capital inflow and possibly avert today’s housing crisis not only in Vancouver, but smaller cities like Hamilton in Ontario and Halifax in Nova Scotia.
His Twitter following jumped from around 18,200 on August 30 to more than 21,300 two weeks later. Many applauded his narrative as an expose of an on-going bad government policy to admit wealthy tax-evading Asian immigrants who have been fuelling the nation’s housing problems.
John Pasalis (11), a real estate broker regarded by some in the media to be an industry expert, tweeted out a popular sentiment: “Our federal gov has known for 25 years & did nothing.”
The CRA study as a watershed document?
Mr. Young has presented the 1996 CRA study as a watershed document in the making of the unaffordable housing issue. His reporting, based largely on the CRA’s reply to his ATIP request (12), contains several claims that need to be scrutinized:
- The study allegedly found massive tax abuse by mostly rich Asian immigrants.
- These immigrants set the foundation for Metro Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis.
- The CRA’s decision to keep the study secret likely aggravated the housing crisis.
- Vancouver is one of the world’s most unaffordable cities.
The biggest problem with Mr. Young’s story is that the full study itself is not available for scrutiny. Instead, readers must rely on his sketchy version and inadequate analysis of the study along with his interview with an anonymous CRA whistleblowing staff. According to his narrative, rich Asians, who comprised the bulk of immigrants under two separate Immigrant Investor Programmes (IIP), flooded into Metro Vancouver, evaded taxes, and caused the region’s housing crisis. The Quebec provincial and Federal governments operated their respective IIPs from 1986 to 2014.
“The documents confirm the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) knew 25 years ago that wealth migration and foreign money were playing a vast role in Vancouver’s luxury housing market, and that government millionaire migration schemes appeared connected to systematic tax abuse, with participants declaring refugee-level incomes,” Mr. Young wrote.
“The study found rich new immigrants made more than 90 per cent of high-value home purchases in which buyers were identifiable in the metro Vancouver municipalities of Burnaby and Coquitlam, but were declaring only tiny global incomes.”
These sweeping conclusions proved hugely popular, judging from readers’ responses on Twitter and the mainstream media’s endorsements. They should take a closer look at the data and information in the ATIP documents and compare that with his reporting.
Clearly, Mr. Young did not question the data and the study’s methodology nor provide context and sufficient background information about the IIPs. Neither did his supporters, who readily accepted his claims.
The key to the SCMP story was a two-page memo written on October 1, 1996 by CRA auditor Dino Altoe to a colleague, John Fennelly, in Ottawa. Mr. Young did not explicitly state that the study was based on a tiny sample size of 328 single-family houses (SFH) taken from two suburbs popular with the IIP immigrants. In 1994, Greater Vancouver had a total sale of 30,023 homes, including 17,670 SFHs, said the British Columbia Real Estate Association.
Taken in 1994, the sample of the 328 SFHs in Coquitlam and Burnaby was divided into three clusters.
Mr. Young omitted Mr. Altoe’s comment that his team performed “a complete analysis” on only two of the clusters of 38 SFHs in Coquitlam and 47 SFHs in Burnaby. As for the largest cluster of 243 SFHs, also in Burnaby, the team analyzed just 31. Why 31, and how were they chosen? Did Mr. Young find out?
In short, the CRA conducted a “complete analysis” on only 116 of those 328 houses, or 35% of an already small sample size. Nevertheless, the CRA team concluded that the IIPs’ mostly Asian immigrants were paying less tax than expected. How representative of immigrants from Asia were those 116 households? Mr. Young did not highlight this fact and the weak data in his story nor did he question Mr. Altoe’s conclusion.
Exhibit 2. Page 1 of CRA memo by Dino Altoe
On page 2, Mr. Altoe said his team had performed “some research” on “data relating” to 6,060 SFHs in Vancouver and Richmond. The references to “some research” and “data relating” betray self-doubt and evasiveness, raising more red flags about the robustness of the study.
Mr. Altoe did not say how many SFHs were analyzed out of the purported sample size of 6,060. How did he arrive at this sample in the first place? Can that number be verified? If his team had been put off by the “large size” of the Burnaby cluster of 243 SFHs such that it could study only 31 of them, how could he and his team possibly take on the challenge of digging into the details of more than 6,000 households. Did Mr. Young find out?
Mr. Altoe’s reference to “similar demographic results” between the Vancouver and Richmond households and those in the Coquitlam and Burnaby samples suggests more guesswork. By “similar demographic results” did the sampling mix old-stock Asian Canadians with the new arrivals? Did the sampling method connote broad racial profiling by lumping everyone with East Asian names as being a part of a “similar demographic”? Did Mr. Young find out?
Exhibit 3. Page 2 of CRA memo by Dino Altoe
Page 3 of the 130-page ATIP document further undermines Mr. Young’s storyline. This page breaks down the “complete analysis” of the 115 SFH owners according to Asian and non-Asian identities. The footnote, “demographics” at the bottom of page 3, contains three groups who own some of the 115 SFHs: residents of non-Asian descent, residents who appear to be of Asian descent, and corporations. In total, these three groups owned 36 of the 115 SFHs. After deducting the five long-term residents of Asian descent, the sample is left with just 74 new immigrants of recognizable Asian descent. Mr. Altoe judged a generation of Asian immigrants as not paying their expected share of income tax based on a “complete analysis” of 74 households.
Significantly, 36 of those non-Asian or appeared-to-be-Asian residents were also found to be paying less than their fair share. This was a significant 31% of the sample size in two suburbs known to be popular with the new immigrants. What if Mr. Altoe had studied suburbs dominated by non-Asian residents? Could old stock Canadians be as guilty as the new arrivals in not paying their fair share?
Exhibit 4. Page 3 of CRA memo by Dino Altoe
The “invasion of tax-cheating Asian millionaires”
Having produced a less-than-thorough study backed by guesswork, Mr. Altoe hardly sounded confident or convincing in his memo.
“It can generally be concluded” that recent immigrants to Canada were reporting “a lower than expected family income…along with a non-filing rate,” he wrote.
But this vague, conditional comment was not reflected in the SCMP story. Instead, Mr. Young delivered a crisp storyline about CRA “auditors linking millionaire migration and suspected tax cheating.”
Significantly, the auditors did not mention “tax cheating” in the CRA documents. There was one reference to “underground economy”, which would apply not just to immigrants but to all Canadians.
It was Mr. Young who talked up “tax cheating”. In so doing, he missed exploring possible reasons for why the 74 new immigrant households were reporting lower-than-expected income.
In fact, the approved CRA reply to Mr. Young in 2016 cautioned that “house sales to reported income is not automatically an indication of non-compliance.” This caution was repeated three times on pages 56, 70, and 100 in the ATIP documents released to Mr. Young.
Susan Betts, then director general of the CRA who wrote that reply, suggested that people who pay little income tax while living in expensive homes were not necessarily tax cheats.
But Mr. Young does not include Ms. Betts’ cautionary comment in his story. Why did she state that house price to reported income is “not an indication of non-compliance”? Mr. Young did not ask.
Ms. Betts also mentioned the agency has a website, “How does the Canada Revenue Agency address the issue of non-compliance in the real estate sector?”, that looks into “the key areas of compliance risk in the real estate sector.”
Mr. Young did not mention if he had checked the website.
“We respectfully decline your request for an interview,” was her reply to Mr. Young.
Exhibit 5. Pages 55 and 56 of CRA letter by Susan Betts
It is not known if the CRA replied to Mr. Young’s story on August 31, 2021, but a handful of readers went against the popular opinion to question his narrative. Within hours of publication, his story had stirred up a new round of outrage about Metro Vancouver’s housing crisis caused by foreign money and tax-evading immigrants from Asia.
Victor Wong, community and human rights activist
In an interview with this reporter, Victor Wong, the former Toronto-based executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, said he was not surprised that the early batch of IIP immigrants reported low incomes.
Mr. Wong, a veteran human rights advocate and activist in the Chinese community, said many of the Asian immigrants in the 1990s lost money on the investments they were directed to make to fulfil their IIP conditions.
“Under the program, the immigrants were given a limited choice of options as to what they could invest in. Most lost money, which explains their low taxable incomes,” he said.
“The initial investment vehicles were risky limited partnerships like shopping malls. It was no surprise that many of them lost money. Eventually, Ottawa allowed them to put their money into safer government bond investments.”
Mr. Wong recounted his meeting in Vancouver with a group of about 25 immigrant investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan in 1996. They sought his help after having lost a large portion of their investments under IIP immigration terms.
He said the media should have reported how the IIP schemes actually failed the immigrants by burdening them with loss-making investments. If there was cheating on the IIP schemes, it was the immigrants who took the sting.
Mr. Wong tweeted (13) that the IIP also initially allowed immigrants to set up tax shelters, further explaining their low tax returns.
“There’s the tired trope about investor immigrants declaring limited taxable income. Ian (Young) knows that IIP immigrants were allowed to set up tax shelter trusts until CRA rules changed about eight years ago. Why was this important point omitted in his lengthy piece?”
Readers Ben Chia and Dina Aloi
A reader of the SCMP story, Ben Chia (14), criticized Mr. Young for insinuating that the immigrants who bought houses in Metro Vancouver were somehow “less entitled than others.”
“The immigration program was not the point of the SCMP piece, was it? It’s the fact that those immigrants bought #VanRE (Vancouver real estate) during two months in 1996 that they were, it’s insinuated, less entitled to than others,” he tweeted.
Another reader, Dina Aloi (15), pointed out that “people can have extensive cash and equity, even enough to purchase a luxury home, but not have taxable income.”
Sam Sullivan, former mayor of Vancouver city
Sam Sullivan, a former mayor of Vancouver city and a B.C. provincial politician, is a known critic of those blaming foreign capital as the main or sole cause of the region’s housing affordability problems.
He took issue with Mr. Young’s assertion that the IIPs brought in “about 200,000 wealthy newcomers to Canada.”
The SCMP journalist wrote: “From 1986 to 2014, the twin schemes brought 190,487 wealthy immigrants to Canada, an estimated 120,000 of whom moved to Vancouver.”
Mr. Sullivan disputes this portrayal as misleading and is amazed that the media “is still selling it.”
But even this number is too high as not all 190,487 successful applicants took up the offer to immigrate to Canada. A major flaw in Mr. Young’s reporting is his assumption that everyone granted immigration to Canada proceeded to do so. Some of the successful applicants stayed back in their country of origin on account of better business and career opportunities along with cultural and family considerations.
Even among those who immigrated to Canada, some eventually returned to their country of origin or migrated to the United States. Mr. Young failed to mention that many well-off as well as middle-class immigrants found they could not adapt to life in Canada.
“Thousands of immigrants quietly giving up permanent resident status,” reported the Toronto Star (16) on October 31, 2016. Its immigration reporter, Nicholas Keung, found that 5,205 immigrants gave up their permanent resident status in 2015.
“More than 21,000 people with permanent resident cards who had the opportunity to become Canadian citizens have turned their back on the quest in the past two years. The highest number of “renunciations” are from citizens of China, India and South Korea,” wrote Douglas Todd (17), the Vancouver Sun’s self-proclaimed expert on diversity and multiculturalism.
While enabling Mr. Young to propagate his theory about tax-evading Asian immigrants, the mainstream media did not interview Mr. Wong and Mr. Sullivan. The two Canadian men are public figures who have been on the frontline dealing with housing, immigration, and other issues for decades. They would have provided a much-needed perspective to counter Mr. Young’s misreporting.
From 1996, Pete McMartin, Vancouver Sun columnist
Among the ATIP documents was a Vancouver Sun column written by Pete McMartin on September 30, 1996. The piece is as relevant and insightful today as it was 25 years ago.
Mr. McMartin, who has since retired from the paper, mentioned that the government had just passed a law mandating all Canadians, old-stock and newly-arrived, to declare offshore assets worth more than $100,000. Apparently, “tax seminars” soon proliferated to teach Canadians to stash their wealth abroad, away from the grubby hands of the government.
He observed that the media focused attention on the new immigrants from Asia while ignoring the fact that “just as many (if not more) rich Caucasian” were affected by the new law. Just as it has today, the tax story became racialized, the result of unbalanced reporting.
Exhibit 6. Page 10 of ATIP documents. Pete McMartin, Vancouver Sun, September 30, 1996
Mr. McMartin took a dig at the popular sentiments expressed on radio talk shows that “the rich Chinese have for too long enjoyed the benefits of Canada without paying taxes proportional to their wealth.”
To those accusing the new Canadians of being opportunists, he issued this rebuke:
“We are all opportunists. I left Ontario 20 years ago because I couldn’t find work there. And if I had to legally deny a tax-drunk government my money, I would do that too.”
To put that CRA study into context, it wasn’t just wealthy Asian immigrants who were looking to reduce tax liabilities. Every Canadian of means was doing it, except that it was much easier for the pot-calling-kettle nativists to target the new arrivals from Asia.
To put the bias into deeper context, the media have shown no interest to follow up on the more recent CRA study (18) that found Canadian corporations dodging up to $11.4 billion in taxes in 2014. The study points to potential systemic tax cheating on a grandscale over a much longer period. Where is the outrage from Mr. Young and his cheerleaders in the media and his fans on social media?
The false Demographia narrative
Mr. Young’s CRA story included one of his favourite claims that Vancouver is “one of the world’s most unaffordable cities”. This is outright false (19). It is built on his continuing and deliberate misuse of Demographia, a limited survey that covers just over 300 cities and towns in a total of eight countries and Hong Kong. The world comprises more than 190 countries which together have over 10,000 cities and towns, so what is the basis for using Demographia to prove anything about Vancouver on the world stage?
Despite having been shown up (20), Mr. Young continues to cite Demographia to repeat the misinformation that Vancouver (21) is “one of the world’s most unaffordable cities”.
Arguing with several people, including me, on Twitter in July 2019, he explained why he has stuck so resolutely with this eight-country survey built on incomplete data:
“Also relying or reporting (22) on Demographia’s figures? The New York Times, the Guardian, the World Bank, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal.
“When journalists for the world’s premier publications think one way, and one angry and marginal bloke thinks another, you’re going to have to decide for yourself who knows better.”
In short, follow the herd. Forget about logic or methodology, or even the truth. Being on the bandwagon with other opinion makers comes first. As long as other publications are using a flawed study built on limited data to make false or misleading conclusions, the SCMP will run it.
Developer Richard Wittstock (23) retorted that Demographia is “opaque garbage. I’ve tried to reproduce their ‘stats’, can’t, and they don’t describe their methodology or how they arrive at their conclusions.”
Housing activist and data analyst Jennifer Bradshaw (24) called out Mr. Young’s deference to other media for his pro-Demographia stance as “reliance on the appeal to authority fallacy.”
“What matters is whether the methodological framework is solid or not, not who’s pointing it out,” she replied.
Mr. Young dismissed them outright.
The “angry and marginal bloke” (25) mentioned in his tweet is me. Since 2015, I have been calling out his misuse of Demographia in his SCMP stories. I acknowledge being marginal, but angry is incorrect. I am confounded that an international newspaper of repute would continue to publish misleading information just because one of its senior journalists says it should ride along with other publications. Whatever happened to the basic principles of truth and accountability in reporting? Does SCMP’s Editorial Code of Conduct (26) apply when it says “journalists uphold the principle of truth and fairness,” and that “accuracy is a top priority”?
Despite his feisty stance, Mr. Young conceded that I could be right.
“I’m sure you’ll prevail in the end Weng Hoong,” he tweeted his reply (27) to my criticism.
I agree, Ian.
I will prevail not only with regard to my criticism of your misuse of Demographia, but also to your latest misreporting of the CRA story, and the continued wrongful blaming of Chinese and Asian money for Vancouver’s housing problems.
Rose Wu, 4 Jul 2019. Vancouver’s ‘Race Estate’ Market Has Hurt Many of Us
Ian James Young, November 22, 2020. Vancouver’s unaffordability is/was very much due to foreign money. Chinese money, specifically.
Ng Weng Hoong, August 8, 2021. The Wilful Blindness of Wilful Blindness: A review of Sam Cooper’s book about China in Canada
Ng Weng Hoong, April 14, 2021. At least 16 factors drove Metro Vancouver housing markets in the 2010s
Ian Young, August 30, 2021. CRA study on new immigrants and their low incomes
Ian Young, South China Morning Post, August 31, 2021. Canada tax agency reveals secret study linking home prices to millionaire migration, five years after freedom-of-information request
David Ley, April 2010. Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines
David Mulroney, August 30, 2021. Brilliant reporting on one of the most disastrous (and long-running) policy failures of our time
Mike Smyth, CKNW, Sept 2, 2021. House-flipping: interview with Brad West @ 23.40 minutes
Ian Young, September 8, 2021. This 1996 study could have influenced housing policy and the debate about the role of foreign money in housing crisis
John Pasalis, September 5, 2021. It’s clear this was by design, not by accident
Canada Revenue Agency, Uploaded by amyjudd. August 2021. The 85-page ATIP response, plus a two-page cover letter in response to Ian Young’s FOI request.
Victor Wong, August 31, 2021. IIP immigrants were allowed to set up tax shelter trusts
Ben Chia, August 31, 2021. The immigration program was not the point of the SCMP piece, was it?
Dina Aloi, August 31, 2021. People can have extensive cash and equity, but not have taxable income.
Nicholas Keung, October 31, 2016. Thousands of immigrants quietly giving up permanent resident status
Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun, March 7, 2017. Growing number of migrants renouncing Canadian immigrant status
The Canadian Press, June 18, 2019. Ottawa estimates corporations dodged up to $11.4 billion in 2014 tax payments
Ng Weng Hoong, October 8, 2015. Vancouver Doesn’t Have The World’s Second Most Unaffordable Housing: The Art Of Selling A Crisis
Ng Weng Hoong, November 11, 2018. The Media Crisis In Vancouver’s Housing Crisis: Demographia
Ian Young, August 30, 2021. “Vancouver became one of the world’s most unaffordable cities”
Ian Young, July 3, 2019. Also relying or reporting on Demographia’s figures?
Richard Wittstock, July 3, 2019. Demographia has been highly discredited
Jennifer Bradshaw, July 3, 2019. “Reliance on the appeal to authority” fallacy
Ian Young, July 3, 2019. One angry and marginal bloke
South China Morning Post’s Editorial Code of Conduct
Ian Young, July 3, 2019. I’m sure you’ll prevail in the end Weng Hoong