Canada Income Inequality: How A Growing Earnings Gap Is Raising Home Prices For All Of Us
This is the first installment of The Huffington Post Canada's new series Mind The Gap, exploring the growing rich-poor divide in the Great White North. Check out our special report on why you should care about income inequality, and our full coverage at the Mind The Gap big news page.
CALGARY and TORONTO — When it comes to the eye-popping housing boom that has seen house prices in Canada more than double in just 10 years, there are a few common explanations. Despite sluggish wages, bulls and bears alike generally cite some combination of easy credit, tight supply and, until recently, a relatively strong economy for opening the floodgates to an unprecedented housing binge, ratcheting up house values — and mortgage debt.
But there is evidence to suggest that income inequality — a trend that has been widening the gulf between Canada’s very rich and everyone else for the last three decades — may also be part of the equation.
For many of us, incomes have become so detached from house prices that any relationship between the two may seem unfathomable. This is particularly true in Vancouver, where the city's optimism about a once-sleepy outpost finally realizing its cosmopolitan dreams came face to face with the recession, prompting a festering suspicion that something had to give.
By mid-2009, with debris from the United States housing bust lodged firmly in the gears of the world economy and debt levels surpassing record highs, observers were beginning to question the stability of the most expensive housing market in the country, which dipped only briefly before resuming its steady climb.
It was amidst this anxiety-ridden atmosphere that a little-known Vancouver real estate blogger tapped out a controversial post titled "Invisible Hand of Income (Inequality)." Noting that average income figures "don't really tell you what is happening at the upper end of the distribution," the self-described Van Housing Bull argued that wealthy buyers could support the market — regardless of what the bears may have been prophesying.
"The bottom line is that the reason why prices are so 'high' is because there is, amongst the buying public, a huge and large income inequality," the unidentified bull concluded. "For what else could be driving the market to clear at these prices, given the hyper-connected infoglut [sic] of a world we live in?"
Commenters were incredulous, deriding the assertions as baseless. The post also conveniently fails to mention ballooning mortgage debt, arguably the most important catalyst in the market’s stunning ascent. But if you consider the central thesis on its own merit — that very high incomes are contributing to very high housing prices — it actually seems rather obvious.
The precise relationship between the growing income gap and rising house prices has yet to be studied in Canada. But some of what researchers have uncovered south of the border sounds pretty familiar.
In a paper he authored for the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2006, Duke University economist and public policy expert Jacob Vigdor found that income disparities in the United States have had a negative effect on housing affordability in tight markets, driving up the cost of everything from luxury homes to rents.
“When the rich get richer, they bid up the price of things that everybody else wants, too,” he told HuffPost.
A particularly insidious thing about a growing income gap, according to Cornell University economist Robert Frank, is the effect it can have on the psyche of buyers whose expectations don’t jibe with their finances. In low-interest, lax lending environments, it’s a scenario that can wreak havoc on the household balance sheet, as easy money makes resisting a sense of entitlement a much more difficult proposition.
“So you’re keeping up with the Joneses,” offers David Macdonald, a research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “The problem is the Joneses have a lot more money than you do. They have a lot more money, and you have a lot more debt — that’s the trade-off.”
As Macdonald noted in a report last year, since 2000, housing prices adjusted for income have moved increasingly “out of their historical range” of three to four times annual median incomes, to ratios of between 4.7 and 11.3. This, combined with swelling mortgage debt, which last year surpassed $1 trillion, has prompted him and others to warn that Canada’s housing market is poised for a painful bust.
But whether the growth in housing prices constitutes a boom or bubble, income inequality — a growing imbalance that has been quietly reshaping the economic landscape for decades — may be partially responsible. Housing costs in recent years have moved well beyond what many Canadians can reasonably expect to afford, gnawing away at expectations and plunging households deep into the red. The growing gap is just another factor that might help to explain why.
(STORY CONTINUES ON NEXT PAGE)
More at Mind The Gap: Why You Should Care About Income Inequality.. What $350,000 Will Buy You In House Markets Across Canada.. 1 In 5 Vancouver Homes Now Sell For More Than $1 Million.. Full Coverage..