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Airbnb supporter decries city effort to 'regulate how I use my home'

Another speaker at public hearing said city shouldn't support people taking on mortgages they can't afford
Speakers shared their thoughts about the city's proposed home-sharing regulations at a four-hour public hearing Tuesday night. The hearing will continue Oct. 26 starting at 6 p.m. Photo Dan Toulgoet

A woman who argued in favour of allowing secondary suites to be used as Airbnb rentals started her presentation to Vancouver city council Tuesday night by saying, “It takes everything I have to say I own an Airbnb and talk about how much it has helped my family.”

The depth of that difficulty became evident when she ended her presentation by fainting.

“We’re not greedy profiteers but families and seniors trying to find creative ways to stay in the city,” she said moments before she passed out, necessitating at a 20-minute recess in the four-hour public hearing into proposed home-sharing regulations that will continue on Thursday night.

The young mother and her partner bought their 100-year-old house off Commercial Drive in 2009. When children arrived on the scene, everyone had to “walk on eggshells” so as not to bother the tenants that subsidized their mortgage payments.

“You want to allow your kids to just be kids,” she said of the imperfect situation for both the family and the tenants. “We felt we needed to charge a rent more than what the tenant felt they should have to pay but less than what we needed.”

Compounding their problems was the difficulty in finding daycare so she decided to work from home. When their last tenant moved out, they turned to Airbnb for revenue.

“Contrary to Airbnb horror stories, our stories have been unbelievably positive,” she said, adding that their guests bring tourist dollars into a non-tourist neighbourhood and she’s able to have room in the house for visiting family.

“[Property] taxes have increased 65 per cent so it seems like an affront for the city to regulate how I use my home,” she said, describing people like her as “house-poor, middle-class families paying obscene mortgages in an expensive place to live.”

When so many homes are sitting empty after being purchased by wealthy owners who live elsewhere, she asked council, “Doesn’t it feel wrong to squeeze 1,000 middle-class families?”

A report prepared by city staff says that approximately 1,000 rental accommodations would become available if the proposed regulations forbid homeowners to rent basement and secondary suites on home-sharing sites such as Airbnb. The number quoted at Tuesday night’s meeting estimated the number to be between 400 and 1,600.

Rafi Spivak was also one of the 98 people on the speakers list. He lobbied council to allow him and his wife Noa, who are both self-employed, to allow basement and secondary suites in the home-sharing policy.

During the break, Noa Spivak expressed empathy for the woman who fainted. “We’re just fighting for the right to live,” she told the Courier. “[Council] talks a lot about sustainability. This is sustainable. Sharing resources is sustainable. When there is a shortage of resources, the option is to share it.

“They present it as if what we are doing is against the law. So I’m now an outlaw. I’m a very dedicated and good citizen trying to make a living in this city. I’ve been here 18 years and it’s still hard. Somehow we managed to get a home and now we’re trying to keep it and it’s almost as if they are trying to keep us out. It’s like people are finger pointing and saying, ‘Oh, they’re homeowners, they’re rich.’ They’ve never heard of mortgage poor? You might get the renters’ vote [with the regulations] but you’ll lose all the others.”

Alex Dagg, who was at the meeting on behalf of Airbnb, said that it is very stressful for Airbnb hosts to come forward. “There have been a number of personal attacks on our host community and that’s distressing,” she told the Courier during the recess. She pointed to an online article that “outed” three UBC staff members who rented out accommodations on Airbnb and provided personal information about them.

Dagg, a policy manager at Airbnb, addressed council earlier in the meeting. She said most of the Vancouver hosts were of modest means who spend more than half of their short-term rental income on rent or a mortgage. “Home-sharing is a housing affordability solution…. It’s become a lifeline for thousands of families.”

Airbnb believes that restricting options to primary residences only — not allowing basement or secondary suites — is “not fair or reasonable.”

It also argues against limiting it to one unit per booking. “One mother rents out two rooms in her house when her children are away at school.”

The city’s proposals include requiring home-sharing hosts to provide a licence number when marketing their property. The licence would cost $49 a year.

While Airbnb has the ability to add city licence requirements to its platform, Dagg said that it is not the only home-sharing platform and other platforms should co-operate in the same way.

Tuesday’s meeting had to end halfway through the speakers list. Of all the presenters, two spoke in favour of the current wording and one warned of the pitfalls of allowing home-sharing in condos.

“People who need to earn extra income can rent for as short as 30 days,” said Karen Sawatzky, chair of the renters advisory committee. The city “shouldn’t support people taking on mortgages they can’t afford…. A lot of people say if they can’t do short-term rental, they can’t afford to stay here. They are saying that all or nothing and that doesn’t make sense to me.”

She was worried that enforcement would primarily be complaint-based. (The city says there would also be random audits.)

Polina Furtula is a condo owner and lawyer who has tried to fight against allowing home-sharing in condos where short-term rentals are expressly forbidden.

“We’ve had a very difficult time catching these [short-term rental] owners and getting the adequate evidence we need to prosecute them and get them to stop. When we send the owners a letter, we get denials. ‘Oh, my brother was visiting.’

“The only effective way we found is to contact Airbnb and threaten them with a lawsuit. We had six listings in our building; all six were taken down [after the complaint] and now two have reappeared. Names of the hosts are aliases. People are getting smart and using fake names. It’s almost impossible to catch them. We feel we can’t do anything.”

Three enforcement officials would not be sufficient, she said.

She added that the city’s policies must force renters to notify owners if they are renting out their accommodation on home-sharing sites.

The public hearing will continue on Oct. 26 starting at 6 p.m.

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