The District of Squamish is investigating whether – and how – to license and regulate short-term rental accommodations. Municipalities around the province are struggling over how to respond to the proliferation of vacation rentals made easy through sites like Airbnb and VRBO, while accommodating residents’ desire to supplement their incomes through occasional hosting and also balancing the preservation of rental housing stocks.
Last fall, District staff told council there are 356 Airbnb listings in Squamish, reflecting about four percent of total housing. Meanwhile, there are a mere eight licensed bed and breakfast in the District, meaning almost all short-term rentals except hotels and motels are operating outside municipal law.
Across the province, local governments are at radically different stages in the process of adapting to the emergence and exponential growth of online rental platforms. Some communities have undertaken in-depth consultation processes leading to new bylaws – ranging from a total ban to an almost free-for-all – while others have not even considered the issue.
Penticton is among the places where civic officials have taken a broad laissez-faire approach, as long as operators obtain business licenses and pass health and safety inspections.
“We've taken the approach to regulate,” said Jennifer Wells, property use and licenses inspector. “Anybody is able to obtain a business license. We do have an on-site inspection and a property review to make certain the property is safe and all permits are obtained.” If those criteria are met, almost any home in the city can operate as a short-term rental for up to six occupants with a maximum of two guests per bedroom.
“If you have more than six occupants – so eight or 10 or 12 or up – you are required to go through a public process, which means your neighbours get a letter mailed to them.” If more than 40 per cent of neighbourhood respondents disagree with the proposal, the plan is rejected – but the operator can still offer rentals for six or fewer guests.
Almost anyone can have six and under "if they go through the right health and safety checks," Wells said.
“We are a tourism-type place, same as Squamish,” she added, “We want to promote good tourism but we want to make sure that we’re doing so in a healthy way. We don't want poor tourism standards, rundown places, we want to make sure they're okay at least health- and safety-wise and then the market’s going to take care of the rest.”
Tofino also has a friendly approach to short-term rentals, an approach that began many years before online booking sites like FlipKey or Airbnb came on the scene.
“We had a system set up that was very liberal in terms of what is permitted,” said Aaron Rodgers, Tofino’s manager of community sustainability. “And then technology has allowed people to access it.”
While hosts in Tofino have, for many years, had their own websites or advertising strategies, the new rental platforms made it far simpler to match renters with accommodations.
“Trying to find somewhere to stay wasn't as easy as it is now,” he said.
An aspect of the Tofino’s existing zoning played a role in making it an ideal place for the short-term rental market to take off.
“Most properties in Tofino permit two dwellings,” said Rodgers. This could be a home with a suite or it could include a “caretaker’s cabin.” As long as one is a permanent residence, occupied either by the homeowner or a long-term renter, the other can be offered for vacation rental.
A couple of years ago, the District of Tofino decided to formalize their systems, because they saw that many operators who were eligible for short-term rentals were operating without business licenses. Into Tofino’s overall liberal approach, a measure of discipline was applied to ensure compliance. The municipality signed onto a program utilized by many jurisdictions now, which analyzes postings across the myriad online short-term rental platforms.
“Basically these guys comb through the Internet, all these different platforms, and identify who is operating and what they are operating and it's updated on a daily or hourly basis,” Rodgers said. Then Tofino hired a full-time business license inspector exclusively to monitor short-term rental operators.
The concerns most often raised around short-term rentals generally focus on two areas: concerns that short-term rentals cut into the availability of long-term rental housing stock and that the comings and goings of tourists can affect neighbourhoods.
Despite the proliferation of booking sites, some communities still have not experienced complaints from neighbours or noticed any significant impacts on available housing stocks caused by short-term rentals.
“The Airbnb thing is something we've got on our list of things to do, but it's not really a priority project with us right now,” said Nick Nilsen, communications officer with the City of Vernon. “So we probably won't have anything in place until 2019.”
Precisely because the Okanagan city has been a tourist destination for generations may counterintuitively make it more challenging for residents who want to cash in through online booking sites.
“There are a lot of resorts in the area that do short-term rentals, so there's sort of a market for that already,” said Nilsen. While the housing market in Vernon is tight, he added, city officials are not hearing feedback that blames short-term vacation rentals. The other common complaint — disturbances caused by vacationers — is also not registering high on the civic radar.
“We’re not getting many complaints from neighbours, that's for sure,” he said.
Down Okanagan Lake an hour, Kelowna is in the process of reviewing the matter, with staff recommendations to go to council in the fall. The city undertook a public opinion survey last year, which is being tabulated as a stakeholder engagement process gets underway. In the meantime, no rentals of less than 30 days are permitted under the bylaws, and enforcement staff is investigating an increasing number of complaints annually about short-term rentals in residential neighbourhoods.
In Harrison Hot Springs, where short-term rentals were completely forbidden, the council in May completely rewrote the relevant bylaw, allowing them in commercially zoned areas. While this sounds like a reversal, it has little practical impact. All the motels, hotels, country inns and lodges in town are already in commercial areas. If there happened to be a residential home in a commercial zone, it could offer short-term rentals, but for all intents, nothing has changed.
While Squamish council considers how to proceed, there are a plethora of options to consider across the scale from the outright banning of short-term rentals to a highly permissive approach. What they will not find by surveying other British Columbia municipalities is anything resembling a consensus about what works best for any individual community.