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US set to unveil long-awaited crackdown on real estate money laundering

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NEW YORK, Aug 10 (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department will soon propose a rule that would effectively end anonymous luxury-home purchases, closing a loophole that the agency says allows corrupt oligarchs, terrorists and other criminals to hide ill-gotten gains.

The long-awaited rule is expected to require that real estate professionals such as title insurers report the identities of the beneficial owners of companies buying real estate in cash to the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).

FinCEN is slated to propose the rule sometime this month, according to its regulatory agenda, though the timeline could slip, said two people briefed on the developments. Anti-corruption advocates and lawmakers have been pushing for the rule, which will replace the current patchwork reporting system.

Criminals have for decades anonymously hidden ill-gotten gains in real estate, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in March, adding that as much as $2.3 billion was laundered through U.S. real estate between 2015 and 2020.

“That’s why FinCEN is taking this important step to put something officially on the books that would root out money laundering through the sector once and for all,” said Erica Hanichak, government affairs director of advocacy group the FACT Coalition.

Some advocates say FinCEN, which declined to comment on the timing of the proposal, has moved too slowly. Officials first said in 2021 that they planned to implement the rule.

FinCEN has been struggling to complete a related rule that would unmask shell company owners. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pressed FinCEN to tighten up that proposal, according to an April public letter. That debate has slowed down FinCEN’s work on the real estate reporting rule, one of the sources said.

The American Land Title Association, which represents title insurers, says it welcomes the new rule but that FinCEN should delay it until the shell company rule is completed.

The proposed rule will be open to public and industry feedback.

PATCHWORK

While banks have long been required to understand the source of customer funds and report suspicious transactions, no such rules exist nationwide for the real estate industry.

Instead, FinCEN has operated real estate purchase disclosure rules, known as geographic targeting orders (GTOs), in just a handful of cities including New York, Miami and Los Angeles. The new rule is expected to effectively expand GTOs nationwide.

FinCEN implemented GTOs in 2016 after the New York Times revealed that nearly half of luxury real estate was bought by anonymous shell companies.

But the orders are easy to skirt by simply buying property outside the targeted areas, said Jodi Vittori, an expert on illicit finance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Transparency advocates pushing for a nationwide rule point to the example of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman who, according to prosecutors, used an anonymous shell company to channel illicit profit from a fraud scheme into the $26 million purchase of a 50,000-square-foot New Jersey mansion in December 2021.

Had Guo brought property across the Hudson River in Manhattan, it would have been subject to a GTO and likely flagged immediately to law enforcement.

Guo, a onetime business partner of former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, has pleaded not guilty to fraud charges. His lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.

A FinCEN spokesperson said GTO reports provide valuable data.

Howard Master, a formal federal prosecutor, said law enforcement uses them to generate leads, but mainly to learn more about assets owned by individuals already under investigation.

“It’ll identify an asset that is beneficially owned by someone that you might not otherwise have known about,” said Master, now a partner at investigations firm Nardello & Co.

A 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found that nearly 7% of GTO reports identified individuals or entities connected to ongoing FBI cases. But the same report highlighted concerns about the ability of FinCEN, which has complained of chronic underfunding, to police the program.

For the new rule to be effective, FinCEN will need more enforcement resources, said David Szakonyi, a political science professor at George Washington University.

“FinCEN needs more people and more computers to process the information.”

Reporting by Luc Cohen and Chris Prentice in New York
Editing by Amy Stevens, Michelle Price and Matthew Lewis
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Canada’s Best Cities for Renters in 2024: A Comprehensive Analysis

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In the quest to find cities where renters can enjoy the best of all worlds, a recent study analyzed 24 metrics across three key categories—Housing & Economy, Quality of Life, and Community. The study ranked the 100 largest cities in Canada to determine which ones offer the most to their renters.

Here are the top 10 cities that emerged as the best for renters in 2024:

St. John’s, NL

St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, stand out as the top city for renters in Canada for 2024. Known for its vibrant cultural scene, stunning natural beauty, and welcoming community, St. John’s offers an exceptional quality of life. The city boasts affordable housing, a robust economy, and low unemployment rates, making it an attractive option for those seeking a balanced and enriching living experience. Its rich history, picturesque harbour, and dynamic arts scene further enhance its appeal, ensuring that renters can enjoy both comfort and excitement in this charming coastal city.

 

Sherbrooke, QC

Sherbrooke, Quebec, emerges as a leading city for renters in Canada for 2024, offering a blend of affordability and quality of life. Nestled in the heart of the Eastern Townships, Sherbrooke is known for its picturesque landscapes, vibrant cultural scene, and strong community spirit. The city provides affordable rental options, low living costs, and a thriving local economy, making it an ideal destination for those seeking both comfort and economic stability. With its rich history, numerous parks, and dynamic arts and education sectors, Sherbrooke presents an inviting environment for renters looking for a well-rounded lifestyle.

 

Québec City, QC

Québec City, the capital of Quebec, stands out as a premier destination for renters in Canada for 2024. Known for its rich history, stunning architecture, and vibrant cultural heritage, this city offers an exceptional quality of life. Renters benefit from affordable housing, excellent public services, and a robust economy. The city’s charming streets, historic sites, and diverse culinary scene provide a unique living experience. With top-notch education institutions, numerous parks, and a strong sense of community, Québec City is an ideal choice for those seeking a dynamic and fulfilling lifestyle.

Trois-Rivières, QC

Trois-Rivières, nestled between Montreal and Quebec City, emerges as a top choice for renters in Canada. This historic city, known for its picturesque riverside views and rich cultural scene, offers an appealing blend of affordability and quality of life. Renters in Trois-Rivières enjoy reasonable housing costs, a low unemployment rate, and a vibrant community atmosphere. The city’s well-preserved historic sites, bustling arts community, and excellent educational institutions make it an attractive destination for those seeking a balanced and enriching lifestyle.

Saguenay, QC

Saguenay, located in the stunning Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, is a prime destination for renters seeking affordable living amidst breathtaking natural beauty. Known for its picturesque fjords and vibrant cultural scene, Saguenay offers residents a high quality of life with lower housing costs compared to major urban centers. The city boasts a strong sense of community, excellent recreational opportunities, and a growing economy. For those looking to combine affordability with a rich cultural and natural environment, Saguenay stands out as an ideal choice.

Granby, QC

Granby, nestled in the heart of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, offers renters a delightful blend of small-town charm and ample opportunities. Known for its beautiful parks, vibrant cultural scene, and family-friendly environment, Granby provides an exceptional quality of life. The city’s affordable housing market and strong sense of community make it an attractive option for those seeking a peaceful yet dynamic place to live. With its renowned zoo, bustling downtown, and numerous outdoor activities, Granby is a hidden gem that caters to a diverse range of lifestyles.

Fredericton, NB

Fredericton, the capital city of New Brunswick, offers renters a harmonious blend of historical charm and modern amenities. Known for its vibrant arts scene, beautiful riverfront, and welcoming community, Fredericton provides an excellent quality of life. The city boasts affordable housing options, scenic parks, and a strong educational presence with institutions like the University of New Brunswick. Its rich cultural heritage, coupled with a thriving local economy, makes Fredericton an attractive destination for those seeking a balanced and fulfilling lifestyle.

Saint John, NB

Saint John, New Brunswick’s largest city, is a coastal gem known for its stunning waterfront and rich heritage. Nestled on the Bay of Fundy, it offers renters an affordable cost of living with a unique blend of historic architecture and modern conveniences. The city’s vibrant uptown area is bustling with shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions, while its scenic parks and outdoor spaces provide ample opportunities for recreation. Saint John’s strong sense of community and economic growth make it an inviting place for those looking to enjoy both urban and natural beauty.

 

Saint-Hyacinthe, QC

Saint-Hyacinthe, located in the Montérégie region of Quebec, is a vibrant city known for its strong agricultural roots and innovative spirit. Often referred to as the “Agricultural Technopolis,” it is home to numerous research centers and educational institutions. Renters in Saint-Hyacinthe benefit from a high quality of life with access to excellent local amenities, including parks, cultural events, and a thriving local food scene. The city’s affordable housing and close-knit community atmosphere make it an attractive option for those seeking a balanced and enriching lifestyle.

Lévis, QC

Lévis, located on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River across from Quebec City, offers a unique blend of historical charm and modern conveniences. Known for its picturesque views and well-preserved heritage sites, Lévis is a city where history meets contemporary living. Residents enjoy a high quality of life with excellent public services, green spaces, and cultural activities. The city’s affordable housing options and strong sense of community make it a desirable place for renters looking for both tranquility and easy access to urban amenities.

This category looked at factors such as average rent, housing costs, rental availability, and unemployment rates. Québec stood out with 10 cities ranking at the top, demonstrating strong economic stability and affordable housing options, which are critical for renters looking for cost-effective living conditions.

Québec again led the pack in this category, with five cities in the top 10. Ontario followed closely with three cities. British Columbia excelled in walkability, with four cities achieving the highest walk scores, while Caledon topped the list for its extensive green spaces. These factors contribute significantly to the overall quality of life, making these cities attractive for renters.

Victoria, BC, emerged as the leader in this category due to its rich array of restaurants, museums, and educational institutions, offering a vibrant community life. St. John’s, NL, and Vancouver, BC, also ranked highly. Québec City, QC, and Lévis, QC, scored the highest in life satisfaction, reflecting a strong sense of community and well-being. Additionally, Saskatoon, SK, and Oshawa, ON, were noted for having residents with lower stress levels.

For a comprehensive view of the rankings and detailed interactive visuals, you can visit the full study by Point2Homes.

While no city can provide a perfect living experience for every renter, the cities highlighted in this study come remarkably close by excelling in key areas such as housing affordability, quality of life, and community engagement. These findings offer valuable insights for renters seeking the best places to live in Canada in 2024.

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Former B.C. Realtor has licence cancelled, $130K in penalties for role in mortgage fraud

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The provincial regulator responsible for policing B.C.’s real estate industry has ordered a former Realtor to pay $130,000 and cancelled her licence after determining that she committed a variety of professional misconduct.

Rashin Rohani surrendered her licence in December 2023, but the BC Financial Services Authority’s chief hearing officer Andrew Pendray determined that it should nevertheless be cancelled as a signal to other licensees that “repetitive participation in deceptive schemes” will result in “significant” punishment.

He also ordered her to pay a $40,000 administrative penalty and $90,000 in enforcement expenses. Pendray explained his rationale for the penalties in a sanctions decision issued on May 17. The decision was published on the BCFSA website Wednesday.

Rohani’s misconduct occurred over a period of several years, and came in two distinct flavours, according to the decision.

Pendray found she had submitted mortgage applications for five different properties that she either owned or was purchasing, providing falsified income information on each one.

Each of these applications was submitted using a person referred to in the decision as “Individual 1” as a mortgage broker. Individual 1 was not a registered mortgage broker and – by the later applications – Rohani either knew or ought to have known this was the case, according to the decision.

All of that constituted “conduct unbecoming” under B.C.’s Real Estate Services Act, Pendray concluded.

Separately, Rohani also referred six clients to Individual 1 when she knew or ought to have known he wasn’t a registered mortgage broker, and she received or anticipated receiving a referral fee from Individual 1 for doing so, according to the decision. Rohani did not disclose this financial interest in the referrals to her clients.

Pendray found all of that to constitute professional misconduct under the act.

‘Deceptive’ scheme

The penalties the chief hearing officer chose to impose for this behaviour were less severe than those sought by the BCFSA in the case, but more significant than those Rohani argued she should face.

Rohani submitted that the appropriate penalty for her conduct would be a six-month licence suspension or a $15,000 discipline penalty, plus $20,000 in enforcement expenses.

For its part, the BCFSA asked Pendray to cancel Rohani’s licence and impose a $100,000 discipline penalty plus more than $116,000 in enforcement expenses.

Pendray’s ultimate decision to cancel the licence and impose penalties and expenses totalling $130,000 reflected his assessment of the severity of Rohani’s misconduct.

Unlike other cases referenced by the parties in their submissions, Rohani’s misconduct was not limited to a single transaction involving falsified documents or a series of such transactions during a brief period of time, according to the decision.

“Rather, in this case Ms. Rohani repetitively, over the course of a number of years, elected to personally participate in a deceptive mortgage application scheme for her own benefit, and subsequently, arranged for her clients to participate in the same deceptive mortgage application scheme,” the decision reads.

Pendray further noted that, although Rohani had been licensed for “a significant period of time,” she had only completed a small handful of transactions, according to records from her brokerage.

There were just six transactions on which her brokerage recorded earnings for her between December 2015 and February 2020, according to the decision. Of those six, four were transactions that were found to have involved misconduct or conduct unbecoming.

“In sum, Ms. Rohani’s minimal participation in the real estate industry as a licensee has, for the majority of that minimal participation, involved her engaging in conduct unbecoming involving deceptive practices and professional misconduct,” the decision reads.

According to the decision, Rohani must pay the $40,000 discipline penalty within 90 days of the date it was issued.

 

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Should you wait to buy or sell your home?

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The Bank of Canada is expected to announce its key interest rate decision in less than two weeks. Last month, the bank lowered its key interest rate to 4.7 per cent, marking its first rate cut since March 2020.

CTV Morning Live asked Jason Pilon, broker of Record Pilon Group, whether now is the right time to buy or sell your home.

When it comes to the next interest rate announcement, Pilon says the bank might either lower it further, or just keep it as is.

“The best case scenario we’re seeing is obviously a quarter point. I think more just because of the job numbers that just came out, I think more people are just leading on the fact that they probably just gonna do it in September,” he said. “Either way, what we saw in June, didn’t make a big difference.”

Here are the pros of buying/ selling now:

Pilon suggests locking in the rate right now, if you don’t want to take a risk with interest rates going up in the future.

He says the environment is more predictable right now, noting that the home values are transparent, which is one of the benefits for home sellers.

“Do you want to risk looking at what that looks like down the road? Or do you want to have the comfort in knowing what your house is worth right now?” Pilon said.

And when it comes to buyers, he notes, the competition is not so fierce right now, noting that there are options to choose from.

“You’re in the driver seat right now,” he said while noting the benefits for buyers.

Here are the cons of buying/ selling now:

He says one of the cons would be locking in the rate right now, then seeing a rate cut in the future.

The competition could potentially become fierce, if the bank decides to cut the rate further more, he explained.

He notes that if that happens, the housing crisis will become even worse, as Canada is still dealing with low housing inventory.

An increase in competition would increase the prices of houses, he adds.

Selling or buying too quickly isn’t the best practice, he notes, suggesting that you should take your time and put some thought into it.

Despite all the pros and cons, Pilon says, real estate remains a good investment.

According to the latest Royal LePage House Price Survey for the second quarter of this year, the average home price in Canada is $824,300. That’s up 1.9 per cent from the same time last year, and up 1.5 per cent from the first quarter of 2024.

In the Ottawa Housing Market Report for June 2024, the average price of a home was up 2.4 per cent from this time last year to $686,535, but down 0.6 per cent from May 2024.

Experts believe many potential buyers are still hesitant of jumping into the housing market and waiting for another interest rate cut of 50 to 100 basis points.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the rush that we see in the past, because people are used to more of a conservative approach right now,” said Curtis Fillier, president of the Ottawa Real Estate Board. “I think there’s still a bit of a hold back, but I definitely do think with another rate cut, we’ll probably see a very positive fall market.”

With files from CTV News Ottawa’s Kimberly Fowler

 

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