Immigration legislation passes in the Senate
Legislation that sparked a march on the Cabinet Building was approved by the Senate this week, despite Opposition criticism.
The Bermuda Immigration and Protection Amendment Act 2015 expands the ability of Permanent Residence Certificate (PRC) holders to purchase property, lowering the average rental value (ARV) threshold from $177,000 to $153,000.
The legislation also allowed PRC holders to purchase up to two homes and loosened 90-day and 120-day annual restrictions on tourist accommodation and the division of fractional units, so that those holding licences for tourist accommodation would get up to six months annually.
While the legislation will not extend the cap limiting how much Bermudian land could be sold to non-Bermudians, currently set at 2,500 acres, it will remove the per-Parish cap.
Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy said the legislation was intended to help boost the economy, saying that property values have fallen sharply since 2008 and there is currently a glut of unsold condominiums around the Island. In addition to increasing property values and giving the real estate market a boost, Sen Fahy said the initiative would create jobs as many of those who purchase property will want to invest in renovations.
While he said that immigration is an emotive issue, he told the Senate the legislation would not impact existing laws against fronting.
Sen Fahy also said the loosening of restrictions for tourist accommodations was important for hotel development, adding: “These changes may mean the difference between a shovel in the ground and no shovel in the ground in some places.”
The Progressive Labour Party, however, argued that the move would only worsen the economic divide, supporting the banks, real estate lawyers and realtors rather than Bermudians.
Opposition Senate leader Diallo Rabain said called on Government to rise and report progress on the legislation in favour of comprehensive immigration reform, saying the tabled legislation was another example of the One Bermuda Alliance's “charade of collaboration”.
Independent Senator James Jardine expressed support for the legislation, noting the plummeting value of houses and condominiums in recent years.
“It's because there are no buyers. It's the law of supply and demand. People are having to drop their prices lower and lower to sell their houses,” he said, saying the legislation could help Bermudians sell their property if they want or need to.
While Government Senator Georgia Marshall said that the housing market was stagnant and construction had slowed, she later corrected herself to say that condominium construction had stalled after PLP Senator Renee Ming pointed out that Government previously said the number of planning applications and building applications had increased year on year.
PLP Senator Marc Daniels, meanwhile, expressed a concern that some groups have begun amassing foreclosed homes at below-market rates specifically so they can cash in when legislation like this comes into effect.
He called on Government not to rush forward with the legislation, suggesting that they take some time carrying out further consultation.
Government Senator Jeff Baron, meanwhile, said that while the legislation would undoubtedly help the banks and those in the real estate business, he had faith that it would also support Bermudian homeowners by increasing the value of their properties.
Independent Senator Joan Dillas Wright said that she had not heard anything that would lead her to believe that the bill would disenfranchise Bermudians, noting the current state of the economy.
“The bottom line is the market is stagnant and it needs to move,” she said.
Responding, Sen Fahy suggested that the PLP never pursued comprehensive immigration reform for the same reason the OBA has not — because they want to provide economic stimulus now rather than in two years.
“This is a bold move,” he said. “It may not be a popular move, but it's a bold move. If it works, then Bermudians will benefit. If this uptick in sales isn't what we hope it will be, Bermudians won't be disadvantaged by this at all.”
He also noted that the ARV rates could have been gazetted and altered without debate by negative resolution, but the Government had decided to bring the issue forward for debate.
Sen Fahy also said that while unusual, there was nothing preventing legislation from being debated in the Senate before the House of Assembly and, given the nature of the legislation, it was decided that it would be better if the first debate was led by the substantive minister.
Despite the reversal of the usual order, the legislation must still be approved in the House of Assembly before it can come into effect.