Renting home OK, but not secondary suites

City approves ‘balanced compromise’ on Airbnb issue

People who want to rent out their home — or principal residence — on Airbnb when they are on vacation now have the City of Vancouver’s blessing,  as long as they pay the appropriate licence fee.

But homeowners who want to list their basement suite or laneway house on a home-sharing site will soon risk a $1,000 fine.

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On Tuesday, Vancouver city councillors voted along party lines to adopt new short-term rental policies that allow people to post their principal residence on sites such as Airbnb.

Six Vision Vancouver councillors and Green Party councillor Adriane Carr said it was part of a balanced compromise that, they hope, will put more housing into the long-term rental stock by discouraging short-term rentals by corporations or individual home owners.

Four NPA candidates voted against the policies for a variety reasons.

While Carr had sympathy for the dozens of homeowners who outlined their need for the extra income over two nights of public hearings last month, she said with a vacancy rate of less than one per cent, “I have to weigh in on the side of the greater public good.”

There are currently 6,000 Vancouver Airbnb listings, all in a city that does not allow short-term rentals less than one month.

The new policy will help ensure as many rental units as possible are available, Carr said. Not only will every unit help but the policies will discourage other homeowners from turning to Airbnb rather than long-term rentals.

Vision councillor Andrea Reimer reflected on what a personal issue it was. A lot of her friends have put their properties on Airbnb as a way of making ends meet. She acknowledged that it must have been very difficult for homeowners who came forward to speak against the proposal.

However, she also has friends who have been evicted by owners who want to make more money by renting the accommodation on sites such as Airbnb. (Airbnb is not the only home-sharing site but it is the most predominant one in Vancouver.) All of them ended up leaving the city, in part because they felt more consideration was given to tourists rather than people working and living here.

The only renter on council, Reimer recently received an eviction notice because of property speculation. She was surprised that so many homeowners at the public meetings said they had difficulty finding good long-term renters having been on the other side of the search 11 times in the past 20 years.

Rules are needed, she said, for both sides of the affordability equation.

The process had been “an incredible balancing act,” said Vision councillor Heather Deal, who voted in favour of the new rules. She also said she was moved by homeowners’ pleas to allow short-term rentals of secondary and basement suites as a way to afford their mortgage and rising costs. “Years ago when you had a basement suite you called it a mortgage helper and had a renter in there,” she said. “Those are valuable places for people to live. Those places need to be kept available.”

NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball referred to homeowners’ “desperate need” to supplement their income through short-term rentals, as expressed at the public hearings. She said when the city encouraged homeowners to invest in secondary suites and laneway houses, the owners weren’t told that the city would later “force” them to turn them into long-term rentals. “I’m worried about those who we will hurt,” she said. “Making it impossible for them to survive is not a good idea.”

Before the vote, NPA councillor George Affleck asked for a postponement of the debate after he read a Twitter post that pre-supposed the policies had already been approved, according to Affleck.

At 11 a.m., @MayorVansOffice issued a tweet that said, “New short-term rental regulations balance need for long-term rentals for those who live +work in YVR with some homeowners who rely on extra income from STR to make ends meet #vanpoli #housing.” This followed a tweet that said, “More than 6,000 illegal STRs currently operating in #Vancouver. New rules will allow 70-80% of existing listings to operate legally as of April 1, 2018 #vanpoli.”

Staff were asked to look into the tweet. A few minutes later, city manager Sadhu Johnston said that after conferring amongst themselves and the city solicitor, they determined that “nothing untoward” had been occurred but that the Twitter account would clarify that the vote had not yet taken place.

When voting on the issue, Affleck said that, unlike the tweet, he had come to the meeting with an open mind. He said the proposed policy was being offered as a “magic bullet” to the affordability issue. “It’s misguided and won’t achieve that… This policy will create a bureaucracy, a stick rather than an incentive program.”

He said that Vision policies over the past year have created three new bureaucracies that cost millions of dollars to manage. “Have vacancies increased? No.”

And while Affleck acknowledged Vision councillor Tim Stevenson’s amendment to revisit the policies when Vancouver’s vacancy rate reaches four per cent, he asked whether it has ever been that high.

Vision councillor Raymond Louie said this wasn’t a case of forced rentals. “It goes to whether you want to support our rental market or not,” he said, pointing out that the city has other efforts to increase the supply of long-term rentals.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said that the policies offer a balanced approach. “I’m stunned that some councillors don’t think there’s a problem here… I can’t imagine doing nothing as some suggest.”

As to the city offering incentives to homeowners to create long-term rental units, as NPA councillors suggested, Robertson said, “We can’t just generate free money to get people to rent either short-term or long-term. This is a straightforward regulatory approach. We’re in the middle of the spectrum between prohibition and doing nothing…

“We may need to refine this but it’s a positive step.”

The new regulations, including licensing fees and fines, are expected to go into effect in April 2018.

mperkins@vancourier.com

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