The operator of an illegal Airbnb rental property in Vancouver broke down in tears at city hall Tuesday as she argued unsuccessfully for a licence to operate her business to help pay for a $6,000 monthly mortgage and feed her son.
Hao-Hsun (Mona) Lan was before a three-council member licence review panel Feb. 1 because of a history of non-compliance with the city’s short-term rental bylaw involving her house on East 28th Avenue and at a recently sold triplex on East 31st Avenue, according to details presented by city staff.
In arguing her case though, Lan disclosed to city lawyer Iain Dixon that the East 28th Avenue house has a separate suite and entrance, with only one address for the property — an admission that had Dixon recommend the panel not grant her a licence.
“If it’s two separate units, they can't both be your principal residence — it’s simply not physically possible,” he told Lan, noting her listings on Airbnb advertised the entire house. “This is clearly a separate unit that should not be being rented as a short-term rental.”
The panel comprised of councillors Melissa De Genova, Rebecca Bligh and Lisa Dominato agreed after understanding it would be illegal for councillors to grant Lan a licence under regulations set out in the bylaw.
The panel also heard that after the city issues a licence to an applicant for a short-term rental — as it did previously for Lan — it doesn’t review every business after it’s in operation, but only those flagged by a complaint or random audit.
Which is what happened in Lan’s case with a public complaint, although her disclosure to Dixon in the hearing was enough evidence to refuse her a licence.
'I needed money to pay for my legal fees'
City staff issued Lan an order in May 2020 to cease operations, but staff’s research indicated she continued to rent her East 28th Avenue home via Airbnb until last summer — the same time she and her ex-husband Gary Buchanan entered a guilty plea in provincial court for operating the short-term rental business without a licence.
“I needed money to pay for my legal fees…I'm battling with my ex-husband on custody battles,” Lan told the council panel. “In 2020, when COVID hit, I had no choice but to operate the business because I have to feed my child.”
A city staff member brought Lan a box of tissues to wipe her tears as she spoke.
Lan also explained she has a $6,000 monthly mortgage on the house, that she has to pay property taxes and that she was in the “mortgage business,” which has been negatively affected by the pandemic.
She indicated that a trial in family court set for October is estimated to cost her $150,000 in legal fees. At trial is when it will be decided what to do with the house on East 28th Avenue, said Lan, noting the mortgage has become her responsibility.
At one time, the house on East 28th Avenue and triplex on East 31st were co-owned by Lan and Buchanan, who was not present at city hall. The proceedings Tuesday weren’t clear on whether Buchanan still has co-ownership of the house on East 28th Avenue.
At the same time, the panel heard that Lan and Buchanan bought a strata unit in October 2021 on East Second Avenue, with title of the property under both their names, said Koji Miyaji, the city’s deputy chief licence inspector.
“Currently, we don’t have any records of short-term rental activity there,” said Miyaji, who also told the panel that Lan has operated short-term rentals since 2016, two years prior to the city introducing the short-term rental bylaw in 2018.
'Like a hotel operator'
In 2019, Lan and Buchanan were issued $1,000 tickets for each of the three units at the now-sold triplex on East 31st Avenue for operating without a business licence. The tickets were not disputed, but they were never paid, Miyaji said.
“We suspect she's been operating [short-term rentals] in a commercial-like manner — like a hotel operator — booking non-occupied suites as [short-term rentals] when in fact they could be rented in the long term to other renters,” he said, referencing the city’s low vacancy rate for long-term rental accommodation.
Added Miyaji: “It is very easy to be in compliance with the [short-term rental] bylaw that council has approved, and thousands of licence holders do so currently. Yet, she continues to ignore the regulations that apply to everyone who operates short-term rentals in Vancouver.”