An expert panel looking into money laundering in B.C.’s real estate market has found an estimated $5 billion in “dirty money” was laundered through the province’s housing market in 2018.
The panel found that illegal activity contributed to increasing the cost of buying a home in the province by at least five per cent.
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“Our housing market should be used for housing people, not for laundering the proceeds of crime,” Finance Minister Carole James said.
“The amount of money being laundered in B.C. and through real estate is much more than anyone predicted.”
The impact in the Metro Vancouver housing market could have been much more significant than 5 per cent because that number was calculated province-wide. A majority of the suspicious transactions flagged by Peter German took place in British Columbia’s largest city.
Including luxury cars and horse racing, the panel estimated $7.4 billion in money was laundered through B.C. in 2018. The panel estimates $47 billion was laundered in Canada in 2018.
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Last year Global News obtained a study of more than 1,200 luxury real estate purchases in B.C.’s Lower Mainland in 2016 found that more than 10 per cent were tied to buyers with criminal records. And 95 per cent of those transactions were believed by police intelligence to be linked to Chinese crime networks.
While the study only looked at property purchases in 2016, an analysis by Global News suggests the same extended crime network may have laundered about $5 billion in Vancouver-area homes since 2012.
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The panel, chaired by Maureen Maloney, has put forward 29 recommendations.
The B.C. government has already implemented a number of the recommendations, including implementing the Land Owner Transparency registry.
The report also recommends real estate developers be licensed under a regulatory regime and that the province establish an intelligence unit to collect data on transactions.
The full Peter German report was also released on Thursday.
German found thousands of specific properties worth billions as “high risk” for money laundering or tax evasion. There are also concerns that there is no agency or police force with adequate oversight or resources to investigate suspicious activities.
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“Wealthy criminals and those attempting to evade taxes have had the run of our province for too long, to the point that they are now distorting our economy, hurting families looking for housing and impacting those who have lost loved ones due to opioid overdose,” Attorney General David Eby said.
German says that B.C. has some of the strongest rules in place for lawyers yet there is no external reporting and no visibility with respect to what is in a lawyer’s trust account.
“B.C. lawyers can represent one party to a sale and be under no obligation to report suspicious transactions,” German writes.
“It is most important that it be possible to trace dirty money as it transits across the oceans, into and out of bank and trust accounts. Without this ability, law enforcement is left with a partial money trail, which many will argue is of little use.”
The Law Society of B.C. says when it learns that a BC lawyer has breached it’s rules, it investigates and can take disciplinary action as needed.
“We have a Law Society – RCMP MOU on information sharing, and meet regularly with the RCMP federal Serious and Organized Crime Section,” communications officer David Jordan said.
“The Law Society is represented at those meetings by a member of our investigation team who is a former RCMP corporal and certified fraud examiner with experience in criminal money laundering investigations.”
German suggests there needs to be higher visibility surrounding financial accounts maintained by lawyers.
“The simplest solution may be to follow the U.S. example, where lawyers are required to file reports on any transaction in which they receive more than $10,000 in cash,” German writes.
The Real Estate of Board of Greater Vancouver says real estate profession will do what it can to assist law enforcement in combating money laundering.
“Rising home prices in recent years have highlighted concerns about money laundering and other issues within the local real estate market,” board president Ashley Smith said.
“Since 2016, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver has met with and given feedback and information to every government body established in our province to look into these matters.”
The real estate industry is under increased scrutiny due to the findings of money laundering in the housing market. Five organizations including the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver and the BC Real Estate Association put forward recommendations to the provincial and federal governments on how to strengthen anti-money laundering measures in real estate.
The submission made five recommendations to the government and suggests best practices for practitioners operating across the real estate sector. These include requiring only verifiable funds be used across the real estate sector and mandatory anti-money laundering education be introduced for all real estate professionals.
The German Report describes shopping sprees where buyers alleged to be using the proceeds of crimes buy multiple properties. One example in the report is from 2001, ‘a student’ purchasing in access of 15 properties in the same Vancouver condo building for $2.9 million. Those properties are now worth $11 million.
Another example is a ‘homemaker’ purchasing five luxury homes over a four year period worth $21 million.