New data from Equifax Canada indicates that missed mortgage payments in Ontario are costing people more than ever before, with an economist warning the numbers seen in the province are "notably above those observed" pre-pandemic.

In the first quarter of 2024, according to the credit bureau, the total mortgage balance reaching severe delinquency, which is 90 days or more without payment, has surpassed $1B for the first time.

"It's certainly an indicator of financial stress," Rachel Battaglia, an economist for Royal Bank of Canada, told Your Morning host Lindsey Deluce. "I wouldn't say that we are overly hung up on this number."

Although mortgage delinquency rates at the national level remain "on par" to what they were before the pandemic, Ontario is an outlier. However, according to Battaglia, there are reasons that explain the rise.

"The total value of mortgages in Canada has risen substantially in the past few years, in part because home prices have increased dramatically," she said. "So, a missed mortgage payment on average will be larger now relative to a few years ago."

Should this data serve as an alarm bell?

Battaglia said the numbers coming out of Ontario are "not surprising at all" which has a higher debt burden compared to other parts of Canada and is contributing to the deteriorating mortgage delinquency picture in the province. 

"Ontario households have to fork over a lot more of their paycheck to cover, ownership costs," she said. "The wage differential doesn't really make up for it."

Households in Ontario and B.C. also tend to have higher debt burdens as a result of this, according to the economist. But she also thinks that in Ontario at least, the province is coming from a "relatively favourable starting point."

"In the five years or so before 2023, the share of mortgages in arrears was half that of the national average," Battaglia said. "There is space for delinquency rates to drift a little bit higher before we need to sound any kind of alarm bells."

Could people start to lose homes?

However, an estimated 34,000 households in Ontario missed a mortgage payment in Q1 of 2024 -- a 23 per cent increase from the first quarter of last year.

Does that mean there's a scenario emerging where people could start losing their homes?

Battaglia doesn't think so, because many people have started to shift "their consumption patterns" which is allowing them to absorb higher interest rates.

"That's been evidenced by slower spending," she explained. "Labour markets aren't also projected to weaken, (by) much more, this cycle."

The unemployment rate is important, Battaglia explains, because it's closely related to mortgage delinquencies. She predicts that as long as unemployment rates remain "pretty normal" the shift in consumption will continue to shift away from goods and services and towards interest payments.

"So long as people are keeping their jobs… we think people will generally be able to manage."

She did warn of one key qualifier.: "Of course, that's assuming the Bank of Canada won't change course anytime soon."


This article has been updated to clarify Rachel Battaglia's statement on why mortgage delinquencies have deteriorated in Ontario more quickly than in some other parts of Canada.