Oil’s Drop is Overwhelmingly Great News for Us Citizens

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Oil and Gas Opposing Views Ignore Reality

Looking back on 2020, it is amazing how the headlines in the energy world continue to be more of the same, in terms of both achievements and challenges — only more so. In fact, on the day I’m writing this column, one of the headlines is, “ US crude oil production breaks new record high ” at 12.6 million barrels per day. That new record high in domestic production happened, despite the fact (and, more likely, the reason) that crude-oil prices have dropped to $53 a barrel. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates even more production in 2020 of 13.23 million bpd.

The news on natural gas that week was equally impressive. The Potential Gas Committee reported that the amount of total recoverable natural gas in the U.S. has risen to a new record high of 3,374 trillion cubic feet. At current levels of consumption, that amount would last more than 100 years. In other words, even with all of the prolific production of crude oil and natural gas in the U.S. since it all began in 1859, we still have more oil and gas reserves than we have ever had before. That is an incredibly crazy, counterintuitive fact that should both astonish us and cause us to be humble and eternally grateful to be blessed with such abundant and critical natural resources.

This tremendous growth in our oil and gas resources, because of the shale revolution, has been the long-playing headline for several years now. Even so, rank-and-file Americans still seem to be unaware and continue to operate on the ever-present misconception that we are somehow running out of oil and gas. Every semester, students in my oil and gas law class are under that mistaken notion. Where do they get that idea? Needless to say, there are anti-fossil fuel agendas that are not shy about perpetuating that storyline for their own purposes — the facts be damned. But I recently confirmed another likely source of bad information (if not indoctrination).

I was invited to speak to high school students in a small New Mexico town, literally surrounded by Permian Basin oil and gas production. My presentation included these statistics about our incredible production rates and seemingly endless reserve estimates. One of the teachers listening to my remarks was the first to ask me a question, which went something like this: “Can you actually look at these students and tell them that there will be any oil and gas left by the time they graduate from college to be able to pursue a career in that field?”

I was shocked — but, I guess, not that shocked — to hear a high school English teacher ask such a clearly uninformed question, especially living and working in the middle of an oil field, in a state that just set a new record for annual production and was enjoying a substantial budget surplus because of the tax revenue generated by their increased oil and gas activity. Do high school teachers not watch the news or read newspapers anymore? If she didn’t know that, what else doesn’t she know? And what kinds of things is she teaching those students? And now I have a clearer understanding of why students in my law school class don’t know what they don’t know — or, even worse, think they know things that are just wrong.

Having an abundant domestic supply of oil and gas also means that we are no longer dependent on other countries. As recently as 15 years ago, the U.S. was importing 60% of our oil from other countries. Today, we are importing only 6%. It is hard to overstate how significant just that one statistic is to our national security.

In spite of that indisputably, incredibly, overwhelmingly great news, opposition to the continued use of oil and gas in the form of every possible kind of challenge imaginable grows more widespread, virulent and irrational.

Coincident with Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Houston and meeting with President Trump to discuss U.S. exports of natural gas to India, 11 protesters with Greenpeace shut down traffic in the Houston Ship Channel by dangling from a bridge to call attention to the climate crisis. I wonder how much their parents paid for their college education.

State governments are one-upping each other in their race to require 100% electricity from renewable energy sources. Maine, California, Hawaii, Nevada and New Mexico are all declaring that goal by 2050; New York and D.C. by 2040. Here’s a tip: Declaring something doesn’t make it so.

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A California bill already passed by their state legislature would effectively prevent any oil and gas produced under new leases on federal land from being able to move off the property. It awaits Governor Newsom’s signature. The California cities of Berkeley and San Jose have passed ordinances that will ban the use of natural gas in new buildings in those cities. Ironically, as California continues to dig a deeper energy-poverty hole, they are becoming more dependent on importing what they need from foreign countries. Do they teach logic in California schools?

Another headline this week is that California’s main utility company, PG&E, is having to implement forced blackouts to prevent their power lines from sparking more wildfires because of the intense winds. The reality of such blackouts could quickly drive home the point that no one wants to live in a world of uncertain electricity — that’s the hallmark of a third-world country. In Texas this past August, ERCOT reached a stage-one emergency because of record demand and limited excess capacity. As more coal-fired, natural-gas-fired, and nuclear-fired power plants are retired, due to sub-market prices charged by wind and solar sources still being subsidized by federal tax credits, the potential for blackouts here will only increase because there will no longer be enough baseload power to step in when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining.

Lawsuits continue across the country, in which plaintiffs are suing for a constitutional right to a clean (read: no oil or gas) environment and for substantial damages from oil companies for fraud and criminal conspiracy (read: tobacco and asbestos). And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (which is melting anyway because of global warming).

The good news keeps getting better, and the bad news keeps getting worse. How is it that Americans can see this issue in such diametrically opposed ways? One side frantically proclaims that computer models predict that life as we know it will end if we don’t abruptly and completely stop using oil and gas. The other side can actually and empirically demonstrate that, should we stop using oil and gas, life as we know it will, in fact, end.

About the author: Bill Keffer is a contributing columnist to SHALE Oil & Gas Business Magazine. He teaches at the Texas Tech University School of Law and continues to consult. He also served in the Texas Legislature from 2003 to 2007.

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Houston Lures Back its Millennials

Earlier this year, we described how a housing shortage in Houston , exacerbated by the devastation of 2020’s Hurricane Harvey, is driving up occupancy rates. We also spent a few words outlining why Space City might not be the most livable place: heat, humidity, flooding, crime and a stark divide between rich and poor.

Yet people — especially young professionals — keep moving there, despite all that plus the rising rents. We really owe it to Houston to tell that side of the story as well.

Follow the jobs

There’s a lot more to Houston than oil and gas, and the unemployment figures bear out that assertion. The energy sector is highly correlated to the economic cycle so, when the national economy enters a contraction, the oil patch tends to go bust. But that’s not what happened in Houston over the past dozen-or-so years.

Credit: U.S. News & World Report. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Even though today its unemployment rate is marginally higher than the national average, Houston was actually a good place to wait out the Great Recession. Historically speaking, that’s not the way things generally go in Texas. It should also be noted that having lower-than–national-average joblessness isn’t necessarily a good thing in 2020. The U.S. is at the point where unemployment is below the long-term “natural” rate, suggesting there’s currently a labor shortage.

Houston has hedged its bets in the job market. It is “home to more than two dozen Fortune 500 companies, including Sysco and FMC Technologies,” according to U.S. News & World Report . “The region was ranked the top manufacturing metro areas in the U.S. The Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical campus, is home to more than 50 health care, education, and research institutions. Houston is also an aerospace hub with NASA’s Johnson Space Center.”

And jobs in Houston can be high-paying. “The average annual income is higher than what residents of many other major metro areas make,” U.S. News continues. “Those with a specific skill set or advanced degrees, such as in health care, aerospace or oil, and gas, can earn as much as $200,000 a year.”

Town with no gown

According to City-Data.com, the average Houstonian is 33 years old, a year-and-a-half younger than the average Texan. You can’t assign a gender pronoun to that unspecified Houstonian because, like a flipped coin that landed on its rim, the split is exactly 50/50. Most Houston residents have not attained a college degree, and non-married people outnumber married people. A plurality of the city is Hispanic, with one-fifth of the population born in Latin America. Black and white residents each account for roughly a quarter of the city’s residents.

But how many are millennials who moved there from somewhere else? The answer is a little surprising. “The six cities which lost the most millennials are New York, San Diego, Miami, Houston, Las Vegas, and Chicago,” SmartAsset reported in 2020 . So what’s a writer whose assignment is to discuss how Houston is attracting millennials to do?

Find a more recent — and more authoritative — source. “Seven metropolitan areas — Houston; Denver; Dallas; Seattle; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Portland, Ore. — exhibited annual net migration gains for young adults that exceeded 7,000,” according to the Brookings Institution’s 2020 study . Houston, according to the study, more than doubles that number.

Isn’t it odd that so many surveys of millennials’ movements assume they all went to college? Sure, they’re more likely to have degrees than was the case with their parents’ generation but, according to CityLab, that just means that one out of three graduated i nstead of one out of four.

It’s exactly those non-collegian millennials that Houston attracts. According to Brookings, fewer than 40% of young adults completed college.

But it’s CityLab that puts the finest point on just how blue-collar Houston’s millennials are. “Miami and Houston have smaller shares of educated Millennials than Detroit and Allentown, Pennsylvania,” Richard Florida writes for the news outlet.

But how does one explain why one study of Houston demographics show a high net out-migration of millennials for Houston and, two years later, another shows a high net in-migration? Anyone who’s raised millennials can offer one possible explanation: They’re native Houstonians who moved back in with their parents.

Where they live

Of course, that’s just a theory. There are neighborhoods that are luring millennials from other cities and, to some extent, from the rooms where their Friday Night Lights cast posters still hang.

The Gridiron is Houston’s principal millennial magnet, according to the Houston Chronicle . “The area, best known for its proximity to the Astrodome, NRG Stadium, and Holocaust Museum in Houston, is estimated to be one of America’s zip code (77054) with the highest percentage of millennial residents,” according to reporter Francisco Ramirez, citing a RentCafe study .

Other real estate sites name Montrose, East Downtown (“EaDo”), Midtown, Fourth Ward and Museum Park as other sections that have attracted young Houstonians. Still, millennials are learning the lesson that the difference between what they want and what they get might involve a 40-minute Uber ride.

“In terms of sheer youngster population, the Addicks area (77084) in northwest Houston was found to have the largest millennial population in the city,” according to the Chronicle , which defines millennials as anyone born between 1977 and 1996. “Roughly 32,600 millennials reside in the area, although they make up a smaller share of residents in the area than Houstonians from other generations.”

In other words, maybe those Taylor Kitsch and Adrianne Palicki posters will be staying up for a while.

Houston at a glance

  • Population: 2.3 million (2020), up 18.4% from 2000
  • Unemployment rate: 4.3%, compared with a national average of 3.7%
  • Average salary: $53,820, compared with a national average of $50,620
  • Cost-of-living index: 93.5 (August 2020), compared with a national average of 100

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Supply-side Economics: How Fast Can we Actually Build?

The demand outlook is imposing. “To meet growing demand, America needs to build at least 4.6 million new apartment homes at all price points by 2030,” the National Apartment Association trade group pronounced in 2020. “In addition, as many as 11.7 million older existing apartments could need renovation during the same period.”

The good news is that something like 700,000 units have opened up since that report came out, but even this frothy pace is still 30,000 less than what it needs to be to meet demand.

This might seem like a great problem to have, but why can’t we build apartments buildings as fast as we can sell them?

The Official Story

The first place we looked for the answer to this question was the NAA’s Barriers to Apartment Construction Index. It isn’t wrong, but let’s just say it’s saddled with a point of view.

The NAA summary of reasons “Why We Can’t Just Build More” boils down to one thing: It’s the government’s fault.

“Over the last three decades, regulatory barriers to apartment construction have increased significantly, most notably at the local level. Outdated zoning laws, unnecessary land-use restrictions, arbitrary permitting requirements, inflated parking requirements, environmental site assessments, and more, discourage housing construction and raise the cost of those properties that do get built,” according to the screed, which doesn’t explain how land-use laws that only went into effect in the past three decades became outdated so quickly.

The NAA is also quick to point to the permitting process, fees related to construction, rent controls, and all other government interference. It’s unclear if they’re saying that local governments shouldn’t be sending inspectors or if they’re saying that someone else should be paying for them. It’s also unclear if they understand that local governments have other business before them aside from greenlighting every project that involves a hardhat and a backhoe. City officials measure success in votes, not square footage, and people who already live in town want zoning laws to ensure that the character of their block doesn’t change too drastically. And then there’s the occasional voter who can’t afford rent on a new Class A building so relies on rent controls which, though inelegant from the economic modeling perspective, work in practice. That’s how you can find people to work in the building without a two-hour commute.

It always comes down to those pesky, inhospitable neighbors, doesn’t it? The NAA is particularly sour on an attitude called NIMBY which, as regular readers here are aware, stands for “Hey, We Were Here First.” In one recent, high-profile example, a grass-roots NIMBY movement kept Amazon out of Long Island City — not just without government intervention, but actually in opposition to state and municipal officeholders who were doing everything they could to seal the deal. The locals believed that this would price them out of their own neighborhoods.

Contravening this fact, the NAA makes the unsubstantiated claim — there’s actually a footnote attached to this assertion referring the reader to another tirade rather than an actual source — that NIMBY activism promotes the interests of high-income over low-income residents.

“While we do not yet have a measure for the impact of political activism on the process of adding new housing, especially the more affordable type, one might surmise it is correlated with income and wealth,” according to a 2020 report. But then again, one might just as easily not surmise that.

Wait, it gets sillier. Look at the relative weight the NAA gives to politics and profits, then compare that to your own experience of what drives any real-world business: “Specifically, political activism, along with profit margins on high-end housing, might explain why there appears to be a national trend towards approving only the larger high quality and higher-priced housing or rental units with the lowest densities.”

Partial Credit

The NAA does actually get around to publishing words that actually pass the sniff test. It discusses land, labor and construction costs. It also notes that not all land is ideal for housing, whether due to geological factors or environmental considerations. And it acknowledges that some of the most desirable areas targeted by investors in new construction are already built out by existing high-end housing stock, retail access, offices, entertainment spots, and green spaces — but isn’t that the reason they want to build there in the first place?

One undeniable factor the NAA highlights is what it terms “lost apartments”.

“Adding to the apartment shortage is the fact that every year, the nation loses between 75,000 and 125,000 apartment units to obsolescence and other factors,” it credibly asserts. “Most lost units are likely at the lower end of the market, disproportionately hurting the affordable supply that exists. This situation is likely to worsen going forward since more than half (51 percent) of the nation’s apartment stock was built before 1980, and without resources dedicated to supporting rehabilitation efforts, more stock will continue to leave the available pool.”

Still, the real answer to what keeps America from building more apartments faster gets us back to that hardhat and backhoe. There simply aren’t enough of the former, although we still have enough of the latter for now.

The Real Answer

Anybody can shingle a roof. Anybody can put up drywall. But when you consider the legions of electricians, plumbers, ironworkers, HVAC installers, elevator installers and all the other people who have specialized skills and are willing to turn wrenches 800 feet in the air, good help suddenly becomes hard to find.

The NAA reports that “Following the [2007-2009] economic downturn, many workers left the construction industry and have yet to return.” Again, the report doesn’t cite a source for this assertion, but it can be verified. The Association of General Contractors doesn’t get into the history of the problem, but it does recognize a severe, nationwide labor shortage that will probably get much worse before it gets better. Labor Department projections back that up.

And someone whose opinion matter has gone on the record as saying that hundreds of thousands who dropped out of construction work during the last economic contraction never returned to it, and those jobs have proven hard to fill.

“Construction is not an attractive industry to millennials. In addition, 600,000 workers left the industry during the great recession and have not returned,” John Wagner, national construction director at global insurance brokerage firm Gallagher, tells GlobeSt.com.

The good news, though, is that there appears to be enough of the means of production to keep building up city skylines. A web search reveals that there are far more articles about shortages of crane operators rather than shortages of cranes.

But that could change. According to Construction Dive, Seattle and Los Angeles each have 49 tower cranes in operation on local sites. Eight other U.S. or Canadian cities have more than a dozen. And then there’s Toronto, with an astounding 120 temporary additions to its skyline. And let’s remember that cranes, just like the high-rises they enable, need to be built, and that’s neither cheap nor easy. According to the American National Standards Institute, there are only around 100,000 tower cranes in the entire world. So that’s inclusive of about 180 nations not in North America. And they also need to be shared with developers of office space, government buildings and anything else too big for fire escapes.

There could come a point when crane availability becomes a key constraint to the multifamily real estate industry’s ability to keep up with demand. In fact, we’ve seen those headlines before.

Not long after that, demand for new housing dried up. Crane operators very suddenly had bigger problems. Apparently, they left the business and never came back.

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The Rise — and Likely Fall — of the Foreign Investor in the U.S. Multifamily Market

We Americans can get a little paranoid when it comes to foreign investors buying up our real estate. It seems that every time the market gets hot, overseas buyers exchange their more colorful currency for greenbacks and start buying properties in the U.S. During the dotcom bubble, it was the British and Germans. The boom before that, the Arabs. Before that, it was the Japanese. And yet our culture persists, and we still own the vast majority of the land in this country, even in the most welcoming — and highest-priced — port cities. It’s happening again now, though. Non-U.S. individuals, corporations and sovereign wealth funds are once again investing heavily in housing throughout the States.

“Foreign investment volumes increased [in U.S. multifamily properties] by 29.3% in 2020,” according to a Bisnow article citing a JLL research report . Not to worry, though. The new neighbors are reflexively polite. “Canadian investors alone deployed $9.8B over the year, 31.5% more than the previous high in 2020,” Dees Stribling writes for Bisnow. “Beginning early last year, for example, the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board and GIC, an organization that manages Singapore’s foreign reserves, partnered with Atlanta-based Cortland to buy up to 10,000 Class-B apartment units across the U.S. and remake them into Class-A units.”

Canada might be the largest non-U.S. player in the market, but it is hardly the only one. Other names on the leaderboard might surprise you. According to the 2020 report itself, “Rising 23.8 percent from one year ago, annualized cross-border investment activity remains near record levels at $14.6 billion. Canada-, Bahrain- and Singapore-based investors drove continued investment, contributing 67.5 percent of quarterly foreign capital in Q1 2020.”

Bahrain and Singapore are not the names you might expect to see on the list. According to the National Association of Realtors, these are not the nations that are buying up general residential real estate, which is primarily single-family. On that list, Canada comes in second to China, followed by India, the United Kingdom, and Mexico.

Bahrain has a population of 1.6 million, while that of Singapore is 5.8 million. So why are these countries with as many residents as Idaho and Wisconsin respectively gaining such an outsized footprint Stateside? While it’s hard to say for certain, it might have a lot to do with investments made by their sovereign wealth funds. Two of the top 10 in the world are domiciled in Singapore, with combined assets of $815 billion. Next to Singapore, Bahrain pales in comparison, but a $15.4 billion valuation will keep them from having to drive Uber. With that much money to invest, anyone might consider buying into a gleaming new addition to the midtown Manhattan skyline.

There are reasons for non-U.S. institutions to acquire space in America even if they have mere millions to burn.

The hype

One invaluable source for this article is a 2020 CBRE report titled “U.S. Multifamily Housing: A Primer for Overseas Investors”. If there’s one criticism to be had of it, it’s that it often explains why multifamily can be viewed as a better investment than retail or office space, rather than why the American multifamily market is unique from the perspective of a cross-border backer. You can see the full report if you want CBRE’s “10 Reasons to Invest in U.S. Multifamily,” but really only four are relevant once you’ve considered that criticism.

No. 3: Favorable regulatory environment. “With respect to ‘social’ housing, the U.S. has a lower level of subsidized/low-income inventory than many other countries. These properties require additional expertise on the regulatory environment, but represent only a small portion of the total inventory (estimated 5% to 10%).”

No. 5: Liquidity. Real estate is not an inherently liquid asset but, it is far less illiquid in the U.S. than in other corners of the world. According to CBRE, this is due to the enviable degree of access to mortgage capital here: “The availability of debt capital is important for investment in any commercial real estate sector. Leverage is used for most transactions, with acquisition financing usually in the 50%-to-75% loan-to-value (LTV) range.” The article also cites the diversity of sources of multifamily real estate debt: banks of course, but also life insurance companies, commercial mortgage-backed securities, conduit lenders and particularly government-sponsored enterprises: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration, major sources of debt capital for existing assets in the U.S., don’t have analogs in many countries.

No. 8: Short-term leases allow immediate adjustment to market conditions. American renters are so conditioned to one-year leases that they can be forgiven for thinking that’s the global standard. It isn’t. It’s a factor of the “American dream” of homeownership; it is assumed that every renter is temporarily sojourning in their apartment rather than calling it their permanent home. In other countries, even fairly well-off people consider renting more common. In Singapore, for example, the typical lease is two years long. In Germany, it can last lifetimes or even generations. So imagine you were born and raised in Germany and grew up with the impression that landlording was a dicey financial proposition because of all the tenant protections. Then you discover that, in the U.S., your contract with your tenants expires on an annual basis. That means you’re not locked into the relationship for more than 12 months. You can raise their rent unless local ordinance intercedes. Given cause, you can evict them.

“In periods of high rent growth, the short-term leases provide owners the ability to adjust rents upward quickly,” according to CBRE. “More importantly, if the U.S. moves into a period of higher inflation, short-term leases provide owners with the ability to make upward adjustments to cover the increased costs of operations.”

No. 10: Third-party leasing and management options. In America, unlike in many other countries, owning multifamily real estate can be a passive, turnkey investment. “[T]he 50 largest multifamily management companies in the U.S. managed 3.2 million units,” CBRE reports, citing the National Multifamily Housing Council. “The largest 50 firms each managed at least 30,000 units; the top five are each responsible for more than 100,000 units.” These management companies not only provide tenant interface and local knowledge, but they also add a professional gloss to the process that most financial investors haven’t been steeped in. Whether the task is to coordinate vendor schedules or using pricing software to optimize revenue, sometimes it’s best to leave it to the pros, and an outsized number of those pros are focused on U.S. markets.

But let’s add one more reason why investors are looking at apartment buildings in the U.S.: immigration.

“A great deal of foreign investment is motivated by a desire to immigrate to the United States or to provide financial support to dependent students attending schools in the United States,” according to a 2020 Socotra Capital blog post by Adham Sbeih .

If deep-pocketed overseas investors are looking to reside permanently in the States, buying multifamily real estate can satisfy two requirements at once: making the case for EB-5 visas, and securing a place to live once they get here. We’ve seen this happen. We’ve also seen wealthy people from outside the U.S. buy up a block of apartments, assign one to a child studying at an American college, and collecting rent on the others. If the kid decides to stay in the States, she continues to have a roof over her head. If she decides to return to her home country, that’s one more unit available to rent.

The reality

Even with all these use cases and all these anecdotes , foreign investors ownership of U.S. real estate is far lower than you might guess. “Currently only about 4% of multifamily holdings are owned by non-U.S. companies,” according to CBRE. That said, the number might be rising, at least in the short term. “[I]nvestors from foreign countries accounted for $13.65 billion, or about 8%, of the $174.5 billion of apartment property sales that took place in the United States last year,” Orest Mandzy wrote for Trepp’s blog in April, citing another CBRE study.

And yet, that surge might end up being too short-lived to constitute a trend, if the NAR’s findings have any bearing. The Realtors look mainly at single-family properties, so their research presents a far-from-perfect leading indicator. That said, non-U.S. citizens’ purchase of American residential real estate has fallen off considerably in recent months.

“Foreign buyers purchased to $77.9 billion of U.S. existing-homes during April 2020–March 2020, a 36 percent decline from the level in the previous 12-month period ($121 billion),” according to the NAR. “The slowdown in global growth, tighter controls on the outward flow of capital from China, and a low inventory of homes for sale likely account for this huge drop.

A similar decline was seen among non-resident foreign investors. Combined, resident and non-resident foreign investors accounted for only 5% of the $1.6 trillion existing-home market over those twelve months, down from 8% in the year-earlier period.

So yes, the hot U.S. housing market has attracted capital from all around the world. And as long as the boom times continue, you can expect foreign investment to pour in. But cycles end and, when this one does, there’s every reason to expect a regression to the mean. But there are reasons why that mean isn’t 0%. There are reasons why overseas investors look favorably on U.S. real estate investment even in lean times. One reason is that it’s largely unrestricted. No matter how many tariffs Washington has placed on Chinese goods, it hasn’t told the Chinese — or the Russians, or the Europeans or anyone else not connected with state-sponsored terrorism — that they can’t buy up an entire time zone if they wanted. Just pay the taxes as if you were a U.S. citizen or, if you prefer, a 30% flat tax.

Now compare that with the byzantine real estate laws in effect elsewhere. “Changing rules and regulations in other countries are also effecting where global investors are choosing to put their capital,” according to UpNest . “France has levied new taxes on investors. London, which was long the international favorite has stumbled, and put new taxes on wealthy investors. Even Canada has begun penalizing foreign investors with new taxes, and fines for having a vacant property, in an effort to reduce foreign investment, and maintain affordability.”

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