Short-term vacation rentals popularized by the AirBnB.com website have surged in numbers throughout the capital region, forcing local legislators to consider regulatory regimes governing the start-up industry.
But to some Victorians, the parallels with a similar situation from 20-years ago may awaken a sense of vacation rental deja vu.
“People forget that the region encouraged bed-&-breakfasts in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games,” says City of Victoria councillor, Chris Coleman.
Victoria found itself in a bind prior to the 1994 sporting event as thousands of visitors and athletes were on the verge of descending onto the capital region with hotel inventory insufficient to house them all. The solution? B&B vacation rentals.
“Tourism Victoria actually supported the B&B option during the games, then we suddenly had people who realized ‘hey, this is great, I like this,’ and they kept operating [B&B’s] after the games finished,” Coleman said, noting that the established hotel and travel industry suddenly had misgivings once they realized that B&B hosts were not part of the hotel tax regime and operated with no oversight or regulations.
That’s when legislators recognized that the start-ups were here to stay, and a process was undertaken to turn what had been a hastened solution to a pending problem into a legitimate lodging option.
Coleman says officials “battled for five years to bring people into compliance," and now B&B’s are as synonymous with vacation travel as hotels.
Fast-forwarding to 2016 the local tourism industry is facing a familiar issue, albeit this time operators have flooded the marketplace with no formal blessing from officialdom, and much like their predecessors, they’re also here to stay.
“You’re never going to win against the Internet,” Coleman says of the global AirBnB vacationing phenomenon entrenched in what many refer to as the ‘sharing economy.’
“So again, the City and the province need to find a way to regulate the industry, protect consumers and generate tax revenues.”
Although AirBnB does not publish readily accessible raw data and statistics on its hosts, the website provides a booking system with real-time availability. Removing booking dates displays a more comprehensive inventory that shows between 1,800 and 2,000 listings from Sooke to Sidney — 70% of which are available as entire homes (suites, condos, or houses).
Despite its appeal to local homeowners with room to spare, detractors argue AirBnB and its competitors (who often display the same inventory) remove valuable rental stock in a region struggling with low vacancy rates.
But when faced with the option of using AirBnB elsewhere, some opponents quickly turn into supporters.
“We held a meeting in James Bay that drew residents upset about AirBnB. I asked them, ‘how many of you have used AirBnB when you traveled, be honest,’ Over fifty-per-cent acknowledged that they have used the service,” Coleman said.
In fact some hosts argue that if it wasn’t for the vacation rental industry, their units would not be available to full-time tenants given the lengthier and more regimented commitment a formal rental entails. Others say their homes are only rented out when they themselves travel or in the case of vacation properties, when they sit unused for a portion of the year.
Speaking to Citified on condition of anonymity, one AirBnB host employed by the Canadian Armed Forces says his lengthy deployments mean the service provides him with an opportunity to earn a passive rental income where none would otherwise exist.
“I leave for three or four months at a time, and return to a cheque from a vacation rental management company that oversaw every booking. Without AirBnB my condo would be sitting empty until my return,” the host said.
The councillor acknowledges that the decision by homeowners to list their properties is not always driven by a desire to profit from vacationers and sidestep long-term tenants. Sometimes the motivator is to hedge a home purchase that would otherwise be unattainable as real-estate prices continue to climb, while keeping the unit available for family visits to the region.
For others the decision to list has more to do with the opportunity to meet people from across the world or accommodate visitors who may be seeking a more personalized, niche experience that coincides with the homeowner’s values or personal interests.
And that’s where targeted vacation rental startups like MisterBandB.com come in. The service aims to connect gay men seeking vacation properties open to the LGBTQ community. The website states its listings bring together home owners who provide “welcoming and affordable places to meet unique people” of the “global gay travel community.” MisterBandB has approximately one dozen accommodations available for rent throughout Victoria.
Altruism, profit or short-term opportunity aside, Coleman believes now is time for the provincial government to step in, acknowledge the industry, and implement a province-wide policy to ensure hosts operate on a level playing field throughout British Columbia.
“A hotel tax imposed on listings in the City of Victoria is a good first step, and with oversight it will legitimize the industry, ensure there are standards, ensure consumers are paying for a product they understand, and that the transaction satiates zoning and taxation. But what happens if Esquimalt doesn’t want to implement the charges? The rules must be province-wide."
When the City of Victoria eventually proceeds with regulation, Coleman says one of the first steps will be an implementation of the region’s three percent hotel tax. The City may also assess if zoning-specific changes will be required or whether initial strata documents provided to new stratas should include more comprehensive wording in regards to short term rentals.
“After all,” Coleman says, “what AirBnB really is, is an evolution of accommodation, and now we need bring it into compliance.” C
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