Are some stratas helping Airbnb hurt housing affordability?

There’s no shortage of sources referring to the impact Airbnb seems to be having on rental stock, and thus housing affordability. It’s particularly apparent in markets like Vancouver and Toronto, where legitimate housing affordability crises mean ownership is a fantasy for many. You can’t take 6500 units out of long-term rental stock, as has happened in Toronto, without driving its cost up.

With vacancy rates as low as 0.8% in Vancouver in the past few months, the rental units that do exist are so expensive that those who can’t afford to buy can’t afford to rent a decent place either. And, if you have the double-whammy of a pet and being of limited means, you can pretty much forget about it.

I’m not a fan of short-term rentals (STR) because of the effect they have on tight housing markets. So, when we bought the Vancouver condo we owned from mid-2017 until last month, the fact that STRs were banned by the strata was appealing to us. Unfortunately, only six of the 75 units were supposedly allowed to be rented at all. Long-term rentals to responsible tenants should absolutely be allowed, given the negative impact these restrictions also have on affordability.

I thought STRs were banned?

Not only do I not want to own in a place that’s contributing to a housing crisis, but a continual parade of short-term stays contributes to noise, security and other problems. Imagine my surprise when, last spring, we suddenly had a parade of STRs in the unit directly below us. After a few months with the same tenants, there seemed to be a period with no occupancy, save the furniture remaining in place. Then in late spring 2018, it appeared new tenants had moved in. A pretty large (for a small condo) family were staying there, but they had all the trappings of vacationers and, within a few days, they were gone as quickly as they appeared.

After another couple short periods of emptiness punctuated by another brief stay, three young women appeared. Since it was clear to me that an STR was operating below us, I asked them directly and they confirmed they’d booked it for the summer online. A couple weeks into their stay we got a pungent blast of weed through our front window from their patio below. I went downstairs and told them of our complete smoking (of anything) ban anywhere on the entire strata property, and asked them to refrain from further smoking. None of this is, of course, their fault. Clearly the owner (who we’d never met) didn’t care enough to inform his ‘tenants’ of their responsibilities while he was breaking strata bylaws to make a few bucks.

This is where I find the story gets interesting. While the new tenants didn’t hang around for their full summer stay once it was clear the curmudgeon upstairs wasn’t into breathing second hand smoke, I felt more needed to be done to ensure this didn’t continue happening. To their credit, the property manager apparently sent a letter to the owner reminding them of the ban on STRs. The next tenants were a really nice family who were still there when we sold last month.

When the strata really doesn’t care

However, in the strata bylaws, the ban was simply stated as no short-term rentals for vacation or similar purposes. That’s it. No definition of a short-term rental for the strata, no specific enforceable penalties, nothing. Given that the City of Vancouver requires owners to have written permission from their strata to obtain a license and defines an STR as being under a month, you might think that would suffice. On the contrary, it creates a loophole big enough to rent to 12 different parties in a year.

There’s been a clampdown on unlicensed Airbnbs since September, but there was evidence it wasn’t working very well as of Christmas. Licensing aside, if the strata was interested in ensuring owners weren’t still doing STRs, why not improve the bylaw to include a minimum rental of six months? I suggested as much to the strata council and was told that it would be under consideration for inclusion at the next AGM (which took place last month). If I hadn’t been selling, their response would have pissed me off to no end. Not only weren’t they interested in discussing the STR bylaw, they weren’t prepared to raise it at the AGM.

Excuse me? As an owner, I should be able to raise any issue I feel impacts the strata, and I shouldn’t need the permission of council to do it. Given I was in the throes of preparing for a new job and move to Victoria, I had neither the time nor energy to make a bigger issue of it. Had I been staying, I’m pretty sure a letter writing campaign to all other owners would have ensued.

Further, in discussions with other owners more recently, we found that several units were being used for STRs, and apparently many more than the six which were only supposed to be allowed to be rented in the first place. So, not only wasn’t council interested in doing more to ensure owners weren’t flouting city and strata bylaws, but their policies on both rentals in general, and STRs specifically, were likely only contributing to Vancouver’s affordability crisis.