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Open the door to short-term rentals, Airbnb tells B.C. municipal leaders

Province's cities grapple with cost of enforcement of new regulations as hospitality industry changes
(via Pixabay)

Short-term rental (STR) accommodations such as Airbnb can benefit communities if local officials listen to residents’ needs, create enforceable and fair regulations and work with the online listing companies, Union of BC Municipalities delegates heard Sept. 13.

“When you’re talking about sharing your home, this is not a new thing,” said Airbnb Canadian director of public policy Alex Dagg. “This is something people have done for generations.”

She said the online platform has five million accommodation listings – higher than the Marriott and Hilton hotel chains.

“There is not one blanket solution for every city,” Dagg said. “Look at local issues before you copy what other cities have done.”

Dagg encouraged municipalities to adapt to the new technologies.

“Technology and the internet is changing the world,” she said. “When you’re regulating STRs, that’s like regulating a lemonade stand. Think about regulating drone deliveries or driverless cars. This is an easy one.”

She said Airbnb is about to start paying taxes in B.C., and encouraged other platforms to make that move.

“These are not little companies,” she said. We really need to see our competitors coming to the table. We’re paying taxes in B.C.”

The Vancouver Island resort town of Tofino has found a regulatory balance for STRs that works, Mayor Josie Osborne said.

“Some people need short-term rental income to pay rent while others can’t afford a place to live,” Osborne said.

Tofino has licenced STRs with licences running from $375 to $750.

There can only be one per property and a person cannot run an STR and a bed-and-breakfast concurrently, she said.

Since 2014, the number of STRs in Tofino has jumped from 29 to 223.

Vancouver is having challenges with achieving regulatory balance due to the city’s one per cent vacancy rate, said Kathryn Holm, city director of licencing, property use inspections and animal services.

Further, Holm said, STRs are hard to track due to the number of out-of-country platforms.

And, said Victoria city clerk Chris Coates, STR providers’ data going to a foreign country creates issues around privacy and access to information.

But, Holm said, a bonus from STRs has been an increase in visitors staying in non-traditional areas of Vancouver and patronizing business generally off the tourist path.

Holm said the start of regulation has seen the number of STRs in the city drop from 6,667 in March to 3,742.

That drop came after Airbnb and the city reached an agreement on cooperation, including the requirement for STR operators to post their city licence online.

Victoria has some 1,400 STRs, with 80 per cent in non-principle residences, Coates said.

The heaviest concentration has been in the tourist-heavy downtown area, he said.

There, Coates said, the city has kept an eye on ensuring there is sufficient residential housing stock.

“Keep it simple,” he said. “Avoid relying on host platforms. Be adaptable.”

Applicants must provide proof of ownership for licences, which range in costs from $150 for a principle residence to a controversial $1,500 for a non-principle residence.

One challenge is enforcement, he said.

“We do have to staff up significantly,” Coates said.

The budget for overseeing STRs in the capital this year is $375,000, and the city is “looking at this as a very much self-supporting enterprise,” he said.

So what is a principle residence?

“It has to be a place you call home,” Holm said. “If you’re in a strata, it has to be in the way the strata permits.”

Dagg said STRs could be beneficial when cities host huge events such as the Olympics.

She said 30 per cent of visitors to the Rio de Janiero 2016 summer Olympics stayed in STRs.

– Jeremy Hainsworth, Glacier Media