As the City of Victoria struggles to enforce its short-term rental by-law despite a lack of available data, an expert says it’s the province that must take action – by requiring sites like Airbnb and Vrbo to help.
Leo Spalteholz, volunteer and housing analyst at Houses to livesays he believes Victoria has taken its regulation as far as it can go and that the provincial government should now take steps to regulate the industry.
Spalteholz says part of the problem for cities with short-term rental regulations is that sites like Airbnb and Vrbo don’t provide data, which can make it difficult to regulate them.
“Clearly Airbnb isn’t particularly cooperative here,” Spalteholz said.
“Ideally the province would step in and say, ‘Look, Airbnb needs to cooperate. It really shouldn’t take much effort to apply. It should basically be the city uploading a list of valid licenses and anyone not on that list shouldn’t even be able to register on Airbnb, or Vrbo, or any of the other platforms.
He notes that the application is made difficult by the anonymous nature of these platforms. Although they may list the general location of each rental, the addresses are not listed. Thus, a law enforcement officer may know the street or headquarters of an unlicensed listing, but not the exact location.
Spalteholz says he would like to see other South Island municipalities do more to restrict short-term rentals.
“Victoria has done a good job overall, I think the ball is in the other municipalities’ court,” he said.
“And of course the pandemic has taken a big bite out of Airbnb but it’s all coming back. So I think they need to get ahead here and put their own restrictions on Airbnb and then toughen the enforcement as well.
Splateholtz admits that might be difficult for smaller towns.
“The reality is probably that many of them are reluctant to spend money on hiring law enforcement personnel.”
Current rules are too strict, say some owners
While some say there aren’t enough stops to enforce city bylaws, others say the rules are actually too strict for landlords.
Angela Mason, CEO of Vacation Rental Solutions in Amalaa company that handles the day-to-day operations of short-term vacation rentals cites the $1,500 license fee for a non-primary residence as an example of overly strict rules.
Those fees, Mason says, go to the application rather than affordable housing initiatives.
“Many of us would have a different view of these fees if they were actually used for productivity in the housing crisis we are experiencing,” she said. “This money is not going to have anything to do with the housing crisis. It is used to control people.
She says the current rule limiting landlords to renting only one bedroom in a primary residence — unless the unit is in a grandfathered building — places too many restrictions on short-term rentals.
Amala Vacation Rental Solutions oversees 65 short-term rentals in the city of Victoria, and Mason says all of the properties it manages comply with the regulations.
She says that while the city is considering regulating the short-term rental industry, it hasn’t considered the economic benefits they bring.
“I have 25 employees and I communicate with [owners of the 65 rentals] regularly. And these people are investing their money in the city,” Mason said. “No one is happy with [the bylaw]. And that’s why there are hundreds of rentals that don’t have permits.
Some changes Mason would like to see made to the bylaw include imposing short-term rental license fees for housing affordability issues and allowing licensing prorations so that if someone doesn’t get it at the beginning of the year, it only pays for the part of the year that they work.
Long term pain for short term gain
Murray Cox, founder of Inside Airbnba website that analyzes Airbnb listings in various housing markets, says data from around the world indicates that short-term rentals are having an effect on housing.
“Especially the big cities that have housing pressure with competition for housing, Airbnb is just taking housing off the market,” Cox said.
“And so that has the effect of making it difficult to find accommodation. Some landlords move people directly so they can get out and Airbnb or indirectly because they might decide not to rent a particular apartment or people rent apartments or houses, especially to Airbnb.
In 2015, San Francisco has restrictions in place on short-term rentals. Before the restrictions, Cox estimates there were around 9,000 short-term rentals, then the number fell to around 4,000 when the restrictions were implemented.
He says it served as an interesting case study, showing that jurisdictions with measurable restrictions have the most success in enforcement.
“It is important to be clear about the city’s policy. So for example, [in Victoria] there’s nothing wrong with renting out your whole house when you’re on vacation, for example,” Cox said. “It’s a very vague policy, but how do you understand that? How do you measure this?
Cox says many cities place limits on the number of days per year a short-term rental can be booked, making it easy to gauge whether or not a bylaw is compliant.
He gave the example of Amsterdam, where operators are limited to a maximum of 30 days and four guests per year.
In 2020, Airbnb rolled out a resource for 10 North American citiesincluding Vancouver, access to a tool called the city portal, which provides information to these cities to help enforce the regulations. Victoria was not chosen as one of the 10 cities.
“It’s just really hard if you don’t have the tools, and because of the nature of these platforms, it’s really hard to catch people,” Cox said.
“Most cities without a registration system and without platform compliance, they rely on inspectors or complaints or investigations and it’s not very effective, especially when you have hundreds or thousands of these lists.”
The City of Victoria tells CHEK they would like to be included in the program if it rolls out further.
Ad revenue is needed more than ever: Airbnb
Numbers of AirDNAa website that analyzes data from Airbnb and Vrbo, shows the short-term rental industry is making a slight comeback in Victoria after the pandemic.
Madeleine Parkin, PR specialist at AirDNA, told CHEK News that in April 2019 there were 1,209 ads available, but only compared to 937 in April 2021, a decrease of 19%.
“There has been a significant decline over the past three years,” she said in an email. However, with the easing of coronavirus restrictions and more people starting to travel, the listings have increased in recent months.
Parkin said that in April 2022 there were 975 listings in Victoria, an increase of 4% from April 2021. She also said that currently 63% of all listings in Victoria are on Airbnb, 9 % on Vrbo and 28% were. at a time.
“I don’t think it’s back to pre-pandemic levels,” Spalteholz said. “But I imagine with the cruise industry coming back and travel resuming, there’s no real reason to believe it won’t come back.”
CHEK News has requested an interview with Airbnb and Vrbo. Vrbo did not respond and Airbnb declined an interview but sent the following statement.
“Accommodation in Victoria and in cities and towns across Canada provides a much-needed additional source of income at a time when the cost of living and inflation have never been higher,” the statement said.
“Airbnb actively encourages hosts to follow local rules and regulations and is the only platform collecting both PST and MRDT in British Columbia, providing much-needed revenue to support housing and economic development.”
This is the second story in the series focusing on short-term rentals. The next story will compare Victoria to other municipalities in the south of the island, as well as jurisdictions around the world.
You can read the first story here.
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