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A luxury good in Vancouver is a second bedroom—or something that doubles as one.“The only thing that’s preventing me from quitting my job and hauling out of Vancouver is the income I generate from Airbnb,” says Lesley, a short-term host whose monthly rent of $1,050 is slightly below the Mount Pleasant average. But she lives comfortably thanks to the folks who pay $40 per night to stay in her “glorified den,” which earns her an extra $7,000 annually. “It supplements my income just enough to enjoy all the things that make living in this city so desirable,” she says.As residents leverage their homes in exchange for housing security, Vancouver city council is trying to get in on the action by creating more rental stock and by taxing or regulating everything from home ownership and infill construction to rentals as short-term as a single Saturday night. But with the affordability crisis showing no signs of waning, people are starting to hack the system.
Under the nose of her landlord, Lesley rents a single bed in a small, windowless room that has a curtain for a door and says the lifestyle affordability she gains is shared with the people she hosts because they save money by not needing to book a hotel. And since Lesley is pregnant and preparing to move in with her boyfriend, she’s started hosting twice as often, already earning $7,500 by July. “The baby is on the way, and I’m trying to boost my income as much as I can,” she says.If Lesley was ever found-out by her landlord, the building owner whom she considers “reasonable” and kind, she’d offer him a cut (she’d need his approval to list the room). But the city has already disallowed Lesley’s short-term rent—at least for now. In an effort to relieve the crushing and skyrocketing rental rates, the city is coming down on short-term rentals as both the hosts, like Lesley, and the platforms, like Airbnb, are expected to cough up details of their operations, get approval, and then give the city a kick-back.Vancouver counts nearly 6,000 short-term rental listings, with four in five advertised on Airbnb. Close to 80 percent will still be allowed to operate under a re-jigged B&B business licence while nearly 1,700 may get permanently shut down, according to city estimates. Enforcement remains such a hurdle, the city expects only one in four hosts—a quarter of those allowed to rent in the short-term market—will register and pay up. Running it all in 2018 will cost $618,000.Compliance will be partly driven by complaints, as has always been the case, and neighbours still have to put up with turnover traffic. In 2016, there were 144 complaints and the year before that, only 19. But awareness and frustration are high since Vancouverites have limited to no tolerance for a handful of scammers who are pricing others out of the city.
When it comes to respecting the rights of private property owners, purely capitalist, profit-driven imperative is widely considered unpalatable in a city of empty homes, but the question remains: If you’re lucky enough to own in Vancouver, should you not be able to do as you like with your property? “That is a really good question,” says West Side home-owner and Airbnb host, Julie. “No, I don’t think you can do whatever you want with it,” she says. “For example, here in Dunbar, if you walk down my street, there are a huge number of big, new, empty houses that nobody lives in. I tell you, if wants to go after people…”Julie said she supports regulation but admits she would consider listing her renovated basement suite as a short-term rental on Craigslist rather than fully comply with the rules. That’s because she serves long- and short-term renters depending on the season, renting to university students during the school year and listing on Airbnb in the summer. The arrangement helps her keep the rent reasonable for returning students (she even stores their belongings for free).“If worse came to worst, I would rent to students for the full year,” says Julie, but it would cost them. While the two-bedroom suite currently rents for $2,000 a month, that rate would need to go up without the $11,000 she earned this summer through Airbnb. If Julie had her way, properties and suites will be assessed on a case-by-case basis and afforded some flexibility. But other homeowners are simply planning to flout the rules all-together.“According to the city, we have a secondary suite but we’re saying it’s our primary residence,” says Allison, a Point Grey resident. Full of furniture used by the family of five, the suite is shared by visiting relatives over the holidays as well as the oldest daughter while she’s home between ballet tours. They will not rent to a long-term tenant, but host an average four guests per month, mostly in the summer, and have no plans to change. “We don’t want to endure having an unintended cost of the family not using the supplemental income and then also leaving unused vacancy space,” she says, noting the extra income goes into their children’s educational funds.“We need that space, it’s part of our living space and we use it regularly,” says Allison. “But when it is not being used by family, we thought it was a shame to leave it empty.”