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Rental housing is for residents, says Vancouver councillor eyeing Airbnb rules

Councillor Geoff Meggs looks to toughen up AirBnB rules, saying downtown housing isn’t meant to be tourist accommodation


 
A sky train is pictured in downtown Vancouver, Saturday, March 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A sky train is pictured in downtown Vancouver, Saturday, March 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

VANCOUVER – A Vancouver councillor is eyeing regulation of home-sharing services like Airbnb, as the city’s rental vacancy rate hovers near zero.

Coun. Geoff Meggs wants to expand and accelerate a study already underway by city staff on the effect Airbnb and similar websites are having on the supply of rental housing.

“We’re going to an enormous amount of trouble to try to produce rental housing. We’re not doing it for tourist accommodation. We’re doing it for people who otherwise could not afford to live and work in the city of Vancouver,” Meggs said in an interview.

“I personally would like to see the rules toughened up to make sure that rental housing stayed rental.”

Vancouver is the latest jurisdiction to grapple with the rise of Airbnb and other websites that allow residents to rent out units or rooms to visitors for short-term stays.

Portland, Ore., has required people listing spaces on Airbnb to obtain a permit since 2014, while Quebec became the first province in Canada to introduce regulations last year, including obliging regular users to get a certificate from the tourism ministry and pay a 3.5 per cent lodging tax.

Vancouver bylaws prohibit rentals of less than 30 days outside of designated hotel and bed and breakfast zones and without a business licence. which means most people renting units using Airbnb are likely doing so illegally, Meggs said.

If council backs his call for a wider study at a meeting on Tuesday, Meggs said he expects staff to report back by fall with options to mitigate any harm on the rental market and provide information on what other cities are doing.

Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty said in an email that the company will work with the city.

“We look forward to continuing a productive dialogue with Vancouver policy makers and providing insight into the make up of our community — the vast majority of whom are regular people sharing their primary residences — to develop smart, clear and fair home-sharing rules.”

There were 4,728 Airbnb listings in Vancouver in December, says Inside Airbnb, a website created by New York-based Murray Cox, who describes himself as a digital storyteller, community activist and technologist on the site.

About 67 per cent of the listings were entire houses or units, as opposed to private rooms or shared rooms inside residences. The percentage was even higher in some neighbourhoods. Of 999 listings in downtown Vancouver, about 800 were entire homes.

“If you start looking at particular neighbourhoods, you find hundreds of homes, which could potentially be 800 residents or families that are displaced,” Cox said.

Because Airbnb limits search results, Cox has written code to determine the total number of listings in a city. He has applied it to 30 cities, including Toronto, where there were 6,712 listings in September, of which 63 per cent were entire homes.

Karen Sawatzky, an urban studies graduate student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has studied Airbnb use in Vancouver by also using code to mine the company’s website. She has reached similar conclusions to Cox.

When she first collected data in November 2014, there were 2,900 listings in Vancouver, which means there has been a 63 per cent rise in total listings in about a year when Sawatzky’s findings are compared to those from Inside Airbnb.

Vancouver’s rental vacancy rate was 0.6 per cent in October, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Most Airbnb users are likely only renting out their units occasionally, Sawatzky said, and most listings are likely condominiums or secondary suites rather than purpose-built rental units.

To fully understand the impact on supply, the city will need detailed listing data, which Sawatzky said Airbnb has been reluctant to provide to some local governments, citing privacy issues.

“I don’t think Airbnb is going to co-operate,” she said.

Meggs is more optimistic, saying he is hopeful Airbnb would share some information. It would help to know the average length of rentals, where visitors are coming from and the types of housing being listed, he said.

David Hutniak of LandlordBC, representing owners and managers of rental housing, said the supply of purpose-built rental units is so tight in Vancouver that the so-called secondary market of condominiums needs to be rented out to residents.

“We’d like to see that secondary rental housing remain long-term rental for the foreseeable future.”


 
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