US cities try to untangle Air BnB issue from housing affordability problem

Recent reports that short-term online rentals may be driving down vacancy rates have triggered a wave of inquiries about Vancouver’s intentions: will the city regulate vacation rentals?

My answer: I’m not aware of any initiative in Vancouver for additional regulation of short-term rentals, nor any complaints from rental advocates pointing to evictions or displacement because of them. (Many landlords would consider vacation rentals by tenants as an illegal sublet.)

Nor is it clear that the obvious activity on the vacation rental front is a major contributor to low vacancy rates or higher rents.

But the city did act during the Olympics to require business licences of residents seeking to profit from the Games by renting a room. It was a common sense tool to ensure public safety, an element of consumer protection and some certainty for renters.

(And I’m sure the hospitality sector would like some assurance that vacation stay operators have to meet some of the minimum standards any hotel or bed and breakfast must achieve before they open their doors.)

Recently Portland decided to permit short-term rentals in single family homes, but stopped short of permitting the business in multi-family buildings. (There are good reasons for this and many strata councils, including my own, prohibit the practice in their bylaws.)

San Francisco is wrestling with the issue too, and a recent analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle has concluded, as did a similar review here, that short-term rentals may be taking a bite out of the housing that would normally be available for regular tenants.

Once again, as in so many housing debates, we don’t have much raw data. That’s why I’ll be making sure that Vancouver’s new housing agency, which is on the council agenda next week, has the mandate to collect data and issue reports on a host of housing issues, from ownership through to vacancies and hard numbers on accessible housing.