Why This Expert Says Canada Has a Home Ownership Tax Shelter

Wahi speaks to professor Paul Kershaw to learn more about how a Canadian tax policy from the ‘70s continues to impact the housing market today.

By Josh Sherman | 8 minute read

May 16

The cost of selling a home Canada can add up, but one thing home owners don’t have to pay is tax on any capital gains from the sale of a primary residence — and that’s a problem, says one expert.

The term tax shelter might bring to mind exotic destinations like the Cayman Islands or Bermuda, which have become havens for the super wealthy to set aside large sums of money and avoid paying any levies. But for Paul Kershaw, something more domestic comes to mind: Canada’s housing market.


In particular, Canadian tax policies have created a so-called “home ownership tax shelter,” according to Kershaw, a policy professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of housing-affordability advocacy group Generation Squeeze. “Tax shelters induce people to move money from one place to another,” he explains.

“Our tax policy is so implicated in rising wealth inequality.”

In a study published in the Canadian Tax Journal last month, Kershaw argues that the principal residence exemption (PRE) on capital gains taxes, established in 1972, is the main culprit. Digital real estate platform Wahi recently caught up with Kershaw to find out why he thinks Canada has a home ownership tax shelter in the first place, whether that’s a problem, and what can be done about it.  


For readers who are unfamiliar with Canadian tax policy, can you explain how capital gains taxes work and what the primary residence exemption is?


If you want to make the home ownership tax shelter especially understandable for people, you draw attention to the following three things:

  1. First, Anyone who goes to work today — yourself included — generally speaking, all of their income is going to be subject to income taxation. 
  2. Now, if you take some of what you earn after your income taxes and you invest it in the stock market or in a mutual fund, 50% of any return on that investment would be subject to taxation. The capital gain is the return on investment.
  3. The third piece is, if you’re somebody like me who’s used some of my after-tax income to buy a home in which I live, we shelter my principal residence entirely from capital-gains taxation. So effectively very little, if any, wealth windfall I gain from my home will ever be subject to taxation.

That matters because there have been tremendous wealth windfalls. In the last four years alone, my home value has gone up by over a million bucks — and that’s sheltered from taxation.

We’ve normalized in Canadian culture that, as a homeowner, I should want home prices to rise, and rise, and rise. In fact, government tax policy is signaling that’s one of their primary places to see wealth accumulated. And that then fuels this cultural addiction to high and rising home prices, and so our tax policy is so implicated in rising wealth inequality and a general contentment with home prices leaving local earnings behind.


What are some different approaches that other countries have taken to taxation on the sale of primary residences? Is Canada’s approach the norm or an outlier?


You can take our neighbours to the south as one of our most common comparators. In the United States, they do tax capital gains in principal residences. And then, when they’re calculating what your gain is, they do allow people to deduct from the wealth accumulated in their homes the interest that they paid on their mortgages.

In Canada, we have a different approach: We just shelter that entirely. So we do have a tendency to shelter housing wealth from taxation in Canada much more so than the United States and other places.


Your study underscores several problems with the primary residence exemption. What are they?


First off, we ought to recognize just how big the home ownership tax shelter is. At the federal level it’s costing us $10 billion a year.

Second of all, when we shelter so much investment in our principal residences from taxation, then we attract lending and borrowing to real estate — and not real estate to build new homes but we actually attract the largest part of investing and lending we do in society to homes that were already built. And then we bid up the prices of those homes. It doesn’t make our economy more productive. It just makes that asset more valuable.

Think about what that means for our economic growth. Right now, real estate, rental, and leasing represent the largest share of our economy: 13%. It’s bigger than construction — construction is clearly related to real estate but it’s its own industrial area. It’s bigger than financing. It’s bigger than oil, mining, and gas. It’s bigger than health.


That would be good if real estate, rental, and leasing also was the industry in which the largest number of Canadians were making their livelihoods — but it’s not. Fewer than 2% of Canadians make their livelihoods from real estate, rental, and leasing.


I would say that is the big primary failing of the homeownership tax shelter is that it is driving an approach to economic growth in this country which doesn’t make us more prosperous, it doesn’t make us more productive, it just drives up our major cost of living and gives us lazy wealth windfalls for those of us who were already homeowners.

How much blame can be put on the PRE for the affordability crisis Canada finds itself in today?

I can’t say it’s responsible for 23.4% of problems. You’re not going to get a quantifiable answer from that, and I don’t think it exists. But I do think that what has tolerated the erosion of affordability over the last two decades is that there hasn’t been an outcry from enough Canadians about home prices leaving earnings behind.

What fuels unaffordability is a cultural addiction to high and rising home prices. We normalize it. The homeownership tax shelter is the quintessential policy that normalizes the expectation that governments think citizens should be excited when home prices rise. Because the very tax policy — the primary tax policy with regards to housing wealth — is rewarding that expectation, and it’s the expectation that is the problem.



Given all these issues, should Canada eliminate the PRE?


Often, people hear my analysis and many think I want to implement capital gains taxation on principal residences. To be honest, we should have never exempted it half a century ago. That was a mistake, in hindsight. But, 50 years later, fixing the harm that has been caused by creating the home ownership tax shelter can’t be addressed by eliminating the principal residence exemption at this stage.

We may still want to think about doing that on a go-forward basis, but whatever we do going forward will actually not address the tremendous wealth windfalls that have been captured over the last decades. The value of principal residences today is $3 trillion more than it was when baby boomers started out in the housing market. That’s a lot of additional wealth. There’s a lot of housing inflation that has made homeowners richer.

Eliminating the principal residence exemption isn’t going to capture that wealth windfall. But if we were to add some progressivity to our annual property taxation, say, we’re going to have the provinces — or the federal government, even — collect a surtax on homes valued above $1 million (which is only really the top 10, 11, 12% of homes in the country), we could say those who are in the most affluent households will be asked to contribute slightly more. And that is what I and others are proposing is the first, most important step to address the harm caused by the original PRE for capital gains. 

This first, most important step is the surtax proposed in your study that was recently published in the Canadian Tax Journal, right?  

Exactly. It’s a deferrable, progressive surtax on a home’s value above $1 million. To make that clear, if your home is $999,999 you wouldn’t pay the tax. If your home’s even $1 million you wouldn’t.


At $1,000,001, then suddenly the first dollar above a million would be subjected to the surtax. So the first million we’re talking about would be exempted, and then the next dollar thereafter would be subject to a modest annual surtax starting at — one proposal is — 0.2%.


So imagine you had a $1.1 million home, we’re talking about adding $200 to your annual property-tax bill. If you do that cumulatively, we’re talking about collecting in the order of $5 billion a year. Five billion a year can do a lot.

Well, $5 billion a year can do a decent number of things.

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And is the surtax deferrable so that homeowners who are house rich but cash-flow poor don’t get burdened with taxes they can’t afford? 

Yeah. Seniors already in provinces can defer their property taxes. So they don’t pay the taxes, they then incur a modest interest rate on the taxes they’re not paying, and then at the sale of the home — or when the home is inherited — that tax bill gets collected. But the calculation of that tax bill is done on an annual basis. 

If we were to have this surtax, we would argue that that deferability should be available to anybody regardless of their age. We would also propose having an exemption to the surtax for the first three to five years.


This interview has been edited and condensed for length, clarity, and style. 

Josh Sherman

Wahi Writer

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