Ontario is doubling the rebate on its land transfer tax for first-time homebuyers to $4,000 in an effort to help them enter the housing market, but it is also raising the same tax on homes that sell for over $2 million.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa said first-time homebuyers won’t pay any land transfer tax on the first $368,000 of a purchase price after the changes take effect Jan. 1. He called the $4,000 rebates an “incentive” for would-be homeowners.

“It’s not going to change their ability to afford the house,” he said. “It is going to provide an added boost at their start.”

Sousa again said Ontario would not follow the lead of British Columbia, which in August imposed a 15% tax on foreign nationals buying real estate in the Vancouver area. But he said the provincial government will block non-Canadian citizens from accessing the increased rebates for the land transfer tax.

There will also be a half-percentage point increase in Ontario’s land transfer tax on homes that fetch more than $2 million, a measure expected to affect less than 1% of the population, added Sousa.

The province takes in over $2.1 billion a year in the land transfer tax. Any additional revenue generated by the increase in the levy on luxury homes will help pay for the doubled rebates for first-time buyers.

The government had expressed concerns about the difficulty first-time buyers face trying to enter the housing market, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, where the average home price last month jumped 21% year-over-year to nearly $763,000.

Over the same time period, home prices in Hamilton grew nearly 20% to an average of $535,000, while prices in Barrie soared 24% to an average of $476,000.

Sousa defended the decision to make the land transfer tax changes provincewide instead of focusing just on the red-hot Toronto market.

“My concern is making decisions that do not have a negative impact on the surrounding areas,” he said.

The Ontario Real Estate Association said the increased rebates of the land transfer tax will help more young families achieve their dreams of home ownership.

“This tax break will reduce a first-time buyer’s closing costs and help them save more for their down payment,” said OREA president Ray Ferris.

But Benjamin Reitzes, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets, said doubling the tax rebates won’t do much for buyers in Toronto.

“Given the runaway home price gains in Toronto and the surrounding regions, this hardly makes a dent in worsening affordability and, if anything, just adds more fuel to the housing fire,” Reitzes said in a note to clients.

Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli said the tax rebates would help some buyers, but called the plan a distraction for an unpopular government.

“This is like jingling keys in front of a baby,” said Fedeli, “because instead of talking about their waste, mismanagement and scandals, they’re talking about this smaller item.”

New Democrat finance critic Catherine Fife said Premier Kathleen Wynne had been smart to downplay expectations of government help for first-time homebuyers.

“Quite honestly, she was right to lower the expectations because what we see in this statement is neither new or profound or progressive,” said Fife.

Ontario’s land transfer tax rises from 0.5% on the first $55,000 of a purchase price to 2% for everything above $400,000. Toronto’s land transfer tax is 1% on the first $55,000 and 2% on the rest. Toronto offers rebates of up to $3,725 for first-time homebuyers.

Sousa also announced a freeze in the property tax on apartment buildings while the government reviews how the tax burden affects rental market affordability.

He said the average municipal property tax burden on apartment buildings is more than double — and sometimes triple — that for condominiums. The government is concerned that lower-income residents in apartment buildings are facing a much higher tax burden than people who own condos.

“Many who are renters in apartments are paying — indirectly — a lot more tax on those properties,” said Sousa.