November 30, 2016 / 9:45 PM / 9 months ago

UPDATE 2-Supply, not foreigners, behind high Canada house prices -CMHC

(Adds quotes from mortgage insurance agency CEO)

By Nicole Mordant

VANCOUVER, Nov 30 (Reuters) - A housing shortage, not a rush of foreign demand, is probably driving up Canadian property prices, the country's housing agency chief said on Wednesday, as he warned against blaming overseas buyers for the decade-long market boom.

New government data shows foreign ownership is only a small factor behind the high prices, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp (CMHC) Chief Executive Evan Siddall said in a speech at the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.

Foreigners have been blamed for driving up prices, particularly in Vancouver, Canada's most expensive housing market, where locals believe wealthy Chinese buyers have made housing unaffordable for ordinary Canadians.

But that may be a case more of perception than reality, Siddall told an audience in Vancouver. "When a white person buys a house, we don't notice. When a person of color buys a house, we do. That's not good economics," he said.

The housing agency said in a report on Wednesday that foreign ownership of Canadian condominiums dropped in 2016 after the introduction of a foreign buyers tax in Vancouver, and remains a fraction of overall ownership, concentrated mostly in newer buildings.

The share of foreign ownership fell to 2.2 percent in Vancouver in 2016 from 3.5 percent in 2015, the agency said, suggesting that the August introduction of a 15 percent tax on foreign buyers in that city had dampened demand.

Buyers did not appear to have shifted to other cities where the tax was not imposed, as some analysts had predicted, with foreign ownership falling to 2.3 percent in Toronto from 3.3 percent a year earlier.

Siddall said the most important factor driving up home prices was a supply shortage, particularly in Vancouver, along with rising disposable incomes, immigration and lower mortgage rates.

He urged municipalities to increase housing supply by, for example, speeding up housing development approvals.

Demand by foreigners for Vancouver-area homes dropped almost immediately after British Columbia imposed the tax on such purchases, but it crept back up in October.

The government has moved in recent years to cool the market, mostly among buyers, by tightening mortgage rules to make it harder to take on too much debt.

Siddall said the most recent tightening, announced on Oct. 3, has resulted in a "slight slowdown in activity" for the CMHC, which insures the bulk of mortgages issued by banks and other lenders. The new rules affect less than one-third of CMHC's business, he said. (Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Richard Chang and Jonathan Oatis)

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