City of Vancouver wades into heated short-term rentals debate

Advocates on both sides of Airbnb claim to have been threatened and harassed

The debate over short-term rentals in the city is heating up to the point of boiling over. Last week, less than 24 hours after Vancouver city council unanimously passed a motion directing staff to look into short-term rentals in the municipality through websites like Airbnb, advocates on both sides of the issue are claiming to have received threats and harassment online.

Last Wednesday, after council’s vote was reported by the media, a source who had previously spoken to the Courier for this story asked not to be named or quoted because of the negative attention it had drawn.

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“I have received a torrent of anonymous threatening messages over the previous three hours and was forced to remove all of my advocacy accounts respecting short-term rentals,” the source wrote in an email. “At this point, I cannot sleep and I fear for my personal safety.”

It's not the only incidence of someone claiming to be threatened. Emily Plommer, who spoke before council in support of short-term rentals, cancelled an interview with the Vancouver Sun the next day because of the vitriol thrown her way.

Plommer had told council that she and her partner could barely make ends meet, and listing the basement studio suite in their two-bedroom property, with the permission of their landlord and proper insurance and paperwork, was the only way they could afford to pay the monthly $4,000 rent.

It was later discovered the couple had three units listed on Airbnb: the basement suite, the second bedroom in their apartment and an entire suite the couple allegedly owns in a separate building. Plommer’s LinkedIn profile also came under fire, as she lists “Airbnb host” as her occupation and states that in 2014 she and her partner had 94 guests between their two properties and gross earnings of more than $30,000.

Reaction online was swift and unforgiving, as anti-Airbnb advocates quickly spread the word on social media and alerted the media.

Plommer told the Courier the animosity she’s received is based on misinformation about her situation. She said she bought the condo with a substantial loan from family and rents it out on Airbnb for four to six months at a time per user and reiterated that if weren’t for the rentals, she and her partner would not be able to afford the place they live now.

She said her experience is why other Airbnb hosts aren’t speaking out publicly in support of short-term rentals.

“Nobody wants to come forward and talk about their experience because of this exact thing that’s happened, you know? Nobody wants to be jumped on by media and be asked all the questions on behalf of every single host in the city,” Plommer said. “We all do it for different reasons, even though some of them might be similar, and we’ve all had different experiences. We’ve all heard the stories of other hosts coming forward in other cities and just getting reamed.”

An administrator for the Facebook group Vancouver Airbnb Hosts Community, who refused to give his or her name, said over Facebook messenger that the group’s members are fearful of speaking out because of what’s happened to Plommer and others.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

Coun. Geoff Meggs tabled the motion directing city staff to look into short-term rentals through websites like Airbnb and their impact on housing stock, an issue more and more people claim is a growing drain on the municipality’s scant supply of rental housing, worsening affordability and livability in the city.

The city's zoning and development bylaw prohibits rentals for less than a month unless in approved zones for hotel and bed-and-breakfast businesses and accompanied by an appropriate city business licence.

“We know from a lot of independent research that there’s thousands of listings on Airbnb and Airbnb itself has said that Metro Vancouver, but especially the city of Vancouver, is one their largest markets in North America,” Meggs told the Courier. “In the last year, concern has become really acute because of the low vacancy rates in long-term rentals, and although it’s illegal anywhere to rent for less than 30 days without a business licence and so forth, the fact that tenants may be violating their leases and the bylaw is, I think, undoubtedly reducing our vacancy rate and driving up rents.”

It’s well established Lower Mainland residents care about affordability, especially as it pertains to housing. Recent coverage has identified and focused on a number of potential culprits responsible for Metro Vancouver’s skyrocketing real estate prices, such as assignment sales (a.k.a. shadow flipping) by unscrupulous realtors, wealthy foreign buyers using properties here as tax shelters, and condominiums bought as investment properties that wind up sitting empty for months, even years.

Now, online short-term rental services such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) are the latest to feel the heat. Opponents say the rising number of properties listed on these sites often comes at the expense of rental units in a city that according the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation has a less than one per cent rental vacancy rate.

“What I think the motion tries to do is say let’s evolve our regulations to meet this new reality so that we really balance public safety and consumer protection with this evolving technology,” Meggs said. “I think there will be some sort of short-term rental program after this review, as there is now, but it’ll reflect better what is actually going on in the market place.”

Meggs called the issue a complex one that municipalities all over North America are dealing with, mostly unsuccessfully. He said the regulatory regimes that have evolved, even those created in cooperation with Airbnb, are often undermined by people who ignore them, or have been ineffective for other reasons.

'CANARY IN A COALMINE'

Ulrike Rodrigues, who runs the Facebook page Homes Not Hotels — No Airbnb and who also spoke before council last Wednesday, said she’s used Airbnb in the past and is not against the service outright, but stressed that unless government steps in to curb the problem, short-term rentals coming at the expense of market rentals will only become more common.

Rodrigues owns and lives in a suite at the Fairfax, a stratified 60-unit building in Mount Pleasant. She and other owners have spent the last few years fighting unwanted Airbnb units in the building. Until recently, 10 former market rental suites, all of which are owned by real estate agent Zul Jiwa and various members of his family, were listed on Airbnb as short-term rentals.

In 2014, the building’s strata council fined Jiwa and company more than $18,000 for numerous strata bylaw infractions relating to the 10 suites, including unreported tenant move-ins and move-outs, unauthorized alterations and damage to common property, and illegally constructed walls in some of the units in order to convert them from bachelor into one-bedroom suites. According to the City of Vancouver, no permits were issued for any alterations to the suites.

At the strata’s annual general meeting in February 2015, Jiwa, his son-in-law Jamil Manji and two other owners became the new strata council, and at a later meeting reversed all sanctions against Jiwa and his family.

Rodrigues and other owners at the Fairfax allege that, despite repeated requests, they have yet to receive minutes from that last AGM or any subsequent council meetings, making it impossible for them to know why the fines were cancelled or whether Jiwa or Manji were involved in that decision. Owners say they have also been denied copies of the strata’s audited financial statements and that the deadline for holding the 2016 AGM has come and gone. The alleged infractions are violations of both the strata’s bylaws and B.C.’s Strata Property Act. Jiwa did not respond to the Courier’s requests for an interview.

Rodrigues called her building a “canary in a coalmine,” saying what’s happening to rental units there is almost certainly happening elsewhere in Vancouver.

“When you have a shared building and somebody wants to offer their suite, either as an owner or as a renter, it’s problematic because you’re in a shared building and there’s no accountability to the other neighbours,” Rodrigues said, adding it’s worse when a real estate agent, business person or commercial interest takes an empty suite, outfits it as a hotel room and offers it on Airbnb.

Eva Vladinski has lived at the Fairfax with her husband for 30 years and was on the strata council that levied the fines against Jiwa and his family. What bothers her most about the short-term rentals in her building is that it’s being done without consulting other owners or getting strata approval. She said several owners have complained to the city, but were referred back to their strata council.

“Unfortunately, our council is the ones who are doing it,” Vladinski said. “I have nothing against Airbnb in a building where everybody agrees to it or in a private home… but this is our home, not a hotel.”

Plommer said she’d like to see the city take steps to recognize short-term rentals as legitimate businesses, and that she thinks most Airbnb hosts would be open to doing what it takes to meet the city’s requirements.

“What we want to see is [Airbnb] acknowledged and given a stamp of approval,” Plommer said. “We’re in favour of having licences to have Airbnbs and being taxed and having these things that legitimize being an Airbnb host [or] being a short-term rental host be a part of whatever regulation goes down.”

Currently, enforcement of the relevant city bylaws is complaints driven, and to date the city says it has received few complaints about short-term rentals and that listing a rental for under the 30-day minimum isn’t enough to prove a violation.

“We have not gone and tried to do a big sweep and force everybody to be in the existing B&B bylaw,” Meggs said. “That would be an enormous undertaking.”

NUMBER CRUNCHER

Karen Sawatzky, a master’s candidate in urban studies at Simon Fraser University, has studied the number and type of Airbnb listings in Vancouver and their implications on Vancouver’s rental housing policies. Though she recognizes there are challenges and political costs that go along with enforcing bylaws, she wants to see the city start by going after the “low-hanging fruit” of people with multiple listings.

“I’d like to see the city proactively enforce its bylaw, because not proactively enforcing its bylaw is allowing its own rental housing policy goals to be undermined,” Sawatzky said. “One of the goals in [Vancouver’s] housing and homelessness strategy is to protect existing rental stock. Well, the city’s not protecting existing rental stock by choosing not to enforce its own bylaw unless someone calls and complains about it.”

Listings on Airbnb fall into one of three room types: shared room, private room or entire home/apartment. Most of listings for Vancouver are for entire homes/apartments, fluctuating between 67 and 71 per cent of all units on the site, a figure that Sawatzky says flies in the face of what Airbnb claims to be about.

"In the past [Airbnb]’s sort of PR narrative was this is just people sharing their own homes where they live [or] they’re just renting their spare bedrooms,” Sawatzky said. “That’s probably how Airbnb started out, but I think it’s been quite a while since it’s been that way.”

Sawatzky said it’s important to look at entire home/apartment listings in particular, though not exclusively, because any of those units that are being used exclusively as short-term rentals or tourist accommodations have the potential to impact the rental vacancy rate.

Although a relatively small percentage of the operators, or “hosts” as Airbnb calls them, in Vancouver list two or more units (between 13 and 15 per cent), Sawatzky found they account for more than one-third of total listings.

As to what kind of impact those listings may be having on our local rental market, Sawatzky said the data isn’t conclusive one way or the other, as it’s impossible to know for sure how many are being used primarily or exclusively as short-term rentals.

For example, her data shows that as of June 1, 2015, 381 operators controlled 1,215 units between them. If each of those operators lived in one of their units, one could say that leaves 834 units that could otherwise be available as market rentals, although Sawatzky is quick to point out that doesn’t mean that they would be.

However, that number could be much higher or lower. Sawatzky said it’s possible that any number of operators with a single listing could be using that unit exclusively as a short term rental or that operators with multiple listings don’t live at any of their units. On the other hand, units listed may only be available part-time, or may all be in the same house.

As Sawatzky explains on her website shorttermconsequences.wordpress.com, “[A short-term rental] operator who owns a house and rents out two spare rooms on a regular basis, plus sometimes his or her own room, plus sometimes the whole house, will show up as having four listings when in fact the maximum number of rooms that could be available to other residents if they were not being used as [short-term rentals] is two.”

Sawatzky’s research focused specifically on rentals available through airbnb.com, but it could easily reflect the overall shape of the short-term rental market. She stressed, however, that contrary to what some people may think, the impact short-term rentals have on the municipality’s rental housing stock is as much a mystery to her as to anyone.

“A lot of people ask me this and the answer is disappointing to them, that I am not able to quantify the specific impact on vacancy rates of Airbnb listings because there’s so many things that affect vacancy rates,” Sawatzky said. “I don’t have the kind of statistical background that would allow me to isolate Airbnb or short-term rentals as a factor from all the other factors.”

Her research does show Airbnb listings in Vancouver are proliferating at an incredible rate. Between Jan. 1 to June 1, 2015 the number of individual listings increased by 17 per cent, from 2,978 to 3,473.

According to insideairbnb.com, a website that accumulates and analyzes data on Airbnb usage worldwide and that Sawatzky used to complement and corroborate her own research, by Dec. 3, 2015 that number had swelled another 36 per cent to 4,728. Sawatzky says that number has undoubtedly grown since.

Sawatzky says critics who claim the number of short-term rental units doesn’t warrant concern are often using the wrong baseline numbers. She says if one takes the number of rental units in the city, then factor out the roughly 40 per cent of which is purpose-built rental housing as it’s unlikely that units in those buildings would be converted to full-time short-term housing, what remains are secondary suites and condominiums, which she loosely ballparks as 50,000 units. At that point, she said, with the city’s less-than-one per cent rental vacancy rate, those Airbnb suites start to look more significant.

“What’s one per cent of 50,000? Well it’s a much smaller number and it gets to be the kind of number where possible 1200 units could affect the vacancy rate,” Sawatzky said.

Meggs’ motion directed staff to look at what other cities are doing to address issues surrounding short-term rentals and “to seek co-operation from Airbnb and other listing services, including detailed data on listings, to ensure an accurate assessment of the issue.” Sawatzky, however, says similar efforts by other municipalities haven’t worked out terribly well.

“There’s nowhere that I’ve seen that Airbnb is providing local governments with the type of data that they actually need to understand the scope of the problem and to address it properly and enforce the bylaws that in many cases Airbnb is breaking because [that 30-day minimum] is quite common,” Sawatzky said. “The only government agency I know that has been successful in getting listing data from Airbnb is the State of New York’s attorney general, and that was achieved through subpoena in 2014.”

According to Sawatzky, the arrangements some cities have made with Airbnb to try to regulate short-term rentals and collect tax on the transaction rely entirely on Airbnb to self-report the tax revenue it brings in since they refuse to share user information and other critical data with the municipalities.

“From what I understand, in most cases Airbnb collects the taxes and then it hands those taxes over quarterly or whatever in a lump sum to the municipalities and basically says, ‘This is the taxes that are owed. Trust us,’” Sawatzky said. “[Airbnb release] this PR stuff that says ‘we’re here to make cities stronger’ and ‘we’re here to make housing more affordable,’ but they don’t provide the data to back that up. This is why I say they haven’t proven to be a trustworthy or cooperative partner for local government.”

jameswes1981@gmail.com

@jameswesmith

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