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Make Vancouver affordable: Renters, hotels add voice to Airbnb debate

People from all sides of home-sharing debate affordability at public meeting
Vancouver English Bay
Night two of public hearings into proposed home-sharing rules reveals divergent Vancouver views.

The renters and home owners who spoke at Thursday’s public meeting might have had opposite points of view when it came to how to regulate Vancouver’s home-sharing economy but they all shared a common plea: help us afford to live in this city.

“I do not accept responsibility for the housing crisis in Vancouver,” one home owner said. If her family is not able to rent out their garden suite on Airbnb to help pay the mortgage, they might have to leave the city. “It would probably be a crisis for my family.”

One renter is in the midst of “selling off 15 years of her life” because she has to move into a motorhome now that the house where she lives has been sold to a condo developer. “What about putting the people who live here first? Housing is treated like a commodity here, and until that changes there isn’t much hope for people like me.”

Many of the representatives of the hotel industry took a middle path. In general they were not against people renting out suites in homes they occupy but said the city had to crack down on commercial operations and “Airbnb hotels” — buildings where every unit was being rented out on various home-sharing platforms.

While their industry is doing well when it comes to filling rooms — the average occupancy rate is 80 per cent — the hotel managers also see the impact of high housing costs on staff who struggle to find affordable rents.

Sascha Voth, the general manager of the Sheraton Wall Centre and chair of the Hotel Association of Vancouver, said he had 30 job vacancies that went unfilled this past summer. “We’re struggling to attract new talent because people can’t afford to live here.”

The hotel owners’ primary concern, he said, is that “enforcement has teeth.”

There were more than 120 speakers signed up for the two nights of public hearings at city hall, although many did not show up, especially as the hearings stretched into the night. (Thursday’s hearing ended at 11:15.) The city is proposing a licensing system that would allow people to rent out their principal residence but not secondary or basement suites or laneway houses. Its objective is that by taking these units out of the short-term rental supply, approximately 1,000 owners would make them available for long-term rentals.

On Tuesday night, most speakers were home owners whose arguments largely adhered to two central themes: 1) renting out basement and secondary suites was the only thing keeping the mortgage wolves at bay and 2) the city was infringing on their ownership rights by limiting who they could rent to. Many said that either their suites were inappropriate for long-term rentals or they needed to keep them available for visiting friends and family. All were in favour of licensing and a three per cent tax.

Home owners made much the same pitch at Thursday’s meeting but there was also more diversity in the range of speakers.

“Airbnb is a cancer that’s destroying communities. Destroying families. Destroying lives,” Rohana Rezel told council. “It takes a special kind of sociopath to vote to legalize a company that’s wreaking such havoc in this city.”

Questioning whether the city was being run by “a bunch of venal politicians” — with the exception of Green Party Counc. Adrienne Carr — Rezel said, “The reason we are in this mess is because we have allowed international money launderers and tax evaders to speculate on our housing market, with near complete impunity.”

Housing had to be recognized as a human right, he added.

The evening’s first speaker, Dr. Brock Smith of the University of Victoria, cautioned against making policy decisions with insufficient data. The assumption that 1,000 units would be added to the rental stock needs to be tested, he said, also highlighting the economic boom generated by home-sharing.

“Belief is not evidence,” he said, “and currently there’s no evidence in how short-term rentals affect long-term rentals. We don’t know how it factors into selling prices or the hotel industry…. While I applaud your efforts, much of the motivation is to protect long-term rentals and I’d hope research would be conducted to see if the bylaw did what it expected.”

Renter Trevor Loke recommended that instead of penalizing homeowners who turn to short-term rentals to supplement their incomes, the city should be rewarding owners who create new long-term rentals by giving them property tax rebates.

John Green said he is spearheading a project to add 150 rental units to Vancouver housing stock and is “acutely aware” of the housing crisis. But, as an Airbnb host, he argued against disallowing homeowners like him from renting out space he keeps available for visiting family, or buying a $500,000 investment property to rent out so his sons can have “a foothold” in the city once they graduate from university.

Several renters argued against viewpoints such as Green’s.

David Chen said short-term rentals today are where the internet was in the 1980s — a seemingly good idea that opens up a Pandora’s box of societal ills and dangers.

He urged council not to concentrate on the number of home owners who will not revert Airbnb suites to long-term rentals and instead focus on the number of home owners who will convert long-term rentals to Airbnb if it is no longer illegal to rent out a suite for less than one month, as the rules currently state.

“My impression is that Airbnb has been destructive to the communities I live and work in,” said Quentin Wright, executive director of the Mole Hill Community Housing Society. With more than 2,000 Vancouver suites offered on Airbnb, “people just can’t find a place to live.”

In the West End, “there’s a lot of pain right now,” he said, and he believes the proposed rules would add a lot of units to rental stock. “I hope it’s your first step and you keep hammering away to this to add as many of these suites to the rental market.”

“Turning houses into investments is displacing so many people,” said Wendy Peterson of the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative and the Vancouver Fairbnb coalition. She asked for tougher enforcement and penalties.

To those home owners who said that the city shouldn’t be able to tell them how to use their properties, a few speakers noted that there are already rules — such as whether you could run a home business in a residential area — which are deemed best for the good of society as a whole.

One Coal Harbour strata owner talked of how hard it was to shut down home-sharing units in his condo building. Finally, and through a lot of research, they were able to fine condo owners $500 every time their condo was rented out short-term. Three owners sold their units and a fourth reverted it to long-term rental.

Three of the homeowners who spoke said they were part of a 30-person consultation group convened by the city. They all said that none of their comments or points of view were reflected in the staff report.

Given the lateness of the hour, council ended Thursday’s public hearing without debating the policies. The bylaw will be on the table at a meeting in early November.

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