Vancouver father battles Airbnb, questions city’s plan to pour $46 million into building affordable housing while doing little to crack down on short term rentals

By Drew Penner

Brette Mullins is a father who’s had to look at switching jobs in order to provide better housing for his family. And then there are the menacing attacks.

“I get threatening emails once and awhile,” he said, referring to emails he gets from Airbnb boosters who don’t like his advocacy against illegal short-term rentals. “I’m used to it.”

Vancouver has made much of its efforts to tackle the housing crunch, including new rules for short-term rentals coming online next month. But observers worry the $46 million[1]http://vancouver.ca/your-government/annual-budget.aspx for affordable housing and a licence fee hike aren’t enough and believe enforcement will be found lacking.

“There’s been no repercussions,” said Mullins, who sought a provincial seat in Vancouver-Kingsway on the Your Political Party ticket, of current monitoring of Airbnb-type accommodation providers. “The problem is there is no way to regulate it.”

In its latest budget the City of Vancouver said it would help vulnerable residents by improving enforcement of standards in single-room occupancy buildings. This comes as ennui has grown, with City reports highlighting a 12 per cent drop in the number of people who are satisfied with Vancouver services – down to just 59 per cent[2]http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/vancouver-2018-budget-annual-service-satisfaction-survey.pdf.

People are pretty happy with sewer, water and other basic functions (average rating of 6.5 out of 10), but the municipal government receives a failing grade for work on development, permits, inspections and enforcement and, you guessed it, affordable housing (4.6 out of 10).

Vancouver is spending $46.3 million on affordable units, including the redevelopment of Roddan Lodge and Evelyne Saller Centre to the tune of $8.2 million. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency will get $5.5 million from taxpayers, and $7.4 million has been set aside to acquire land for affordable housing projects. And Southeast False Creek Area 3B social housing was deemed worthy of $2.7 from that fiscal pot.

Many analysts are skeptical these investments will be able to counter the outsize effects of laissez-faire app capitalism, and eagerly await the new short-term rental regulations.

“Building takes longer,” Mullins said. “A quicker way to supply is banning short-term rentals.”

Residents will be able to apply online for a business licence to run Airbnbs after April 18. But hopeful home-rental-business owners will have to get their landlord’s permission or ensure strata bylaws permit such revenue generation opportunities. And they’ll be required to be on call 24/7 in case the City needs to call and check up on what’s going on. And if they don’t live there most of the time themselves then forget about it. That’s not going to fly, based on how the bylaw is worded.

But will municipal officials be able to keep up with rulebreakers? A 2016 Union of B.C. Municipalities report[3]http://www.ubcm.ca/assets/Whats~New/UBCM%20Housing%20Strategy.pdf told officials to expect just one in 10 short-term rental operators to get a permit and pay taxes. The rest would need prodding by compliance monitors. We wanted to hear what Vancouver’s planning to do to up the ante on preventing short-term rental abuse, in its own words. But unfortunately the City is not taking any questions on the enforcement of these sorts of issues until at least next month.

So we turned to the financial plan they released this year for clues. Turns out, keeping tabs on flagrant abusers and corner-cutters isn’t cheap. Vancouver’s actually hiking licence fees across the board by 4.1 per cent to “recover the cost of maintaining a robust licensing and enforcement system.” In their own corporate jargon they say they’re doing it because “the City is under pressure to review and adapt its licensing practices in response to public expectations and to the emerging of new businesses and business models.” The City says it needs this additional cash “to develop policy, to improve communication with businesses and the public, to support compliance and to carry out proactive enforcement of bylaws.” Of course that could mean catching parking violators. But it also hints at the affordability crisis that’s been dragging down its poll numbers. So they want to crack down, of course, and it doesn’t hurt to look good in the eyes of the public while doing so.

When rental housing disappears from the urban sphere, the health of the city is affected. It might be costly to keep tabs on bed and breakfast providers, however, evidence suggests the alternative carries a higher price tag still. After all, the removal of a single unit to commercial short-term renting was found to cost San Francisco $250,000 – $300,000 USD. So we look forward to seeing how the City follows through in the weeks to come.

Now Mullins is working with shadowy housing advocate VISTRO11[4]https://twitter.com/vistro11?lang=en and a team of pro bono lawyers to draft a cease and desist letter to Airbnb, and a letter of demand to the City of Vancouver. And he’s mulling a bid for City Council later this year. You can be sure this issue will be a key part of his platform.

References   [ + ]

1. http://vancouver.ca/your-government/annual-budget.aspx
2. http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/vancouver-2018-budget-annual-service-satisfaction-survey.pdf
3. http://www.ubcm.ca/assets/Whats~New/UBCM%20Housing%20Strategy.pdf
4. https://twitter.com/vistro11?lang=en

7 Responses to Vancouver father battles Airbnb, questions city’s plan to pour $46 million into building affordable housing while doing little to crack down on short term rentals

  1. Shannon LeBlanc says:

    Thank Christ someone is doing something about this. What a disaster for BC. Besides impoverishing working people’s lives and driving them out of the cities, it is going to kill the cities’ businesses. Commercial rents are also extremely high and unstable. No vibrant local business is going to be able to survive, only megacorporate franchises will be able to afford to buy their own buildings, and Vancouver will turn into The Hunger Games. Sad how prescient that movie was. And it’s not just Vancouver, it’s almost every city in BC.

    • nonconfidencevote says:

      I’m a tad more cynical.
      While Brette Mullins raises some excellent points about the city’s lack of enforcement on illegall AirBnB suites all while spending $46 million on “affordable” housing ( insert taxpayers funded housing)
      The fact that he’s ” mulling running for Civic office”….puts a new light on his “motives” for being a champion for the homeless.
      I believe Gregor said roughly that he was going to “end homelessness in Vancouver” back when he was first elected……..
      8 years later.
      Gregor has quit and homelessness is worse.

    • Agreed. My favourite coffee shop on 13th and Main will eventually be taken out by Starbucks.

      I am going to push a reduction in small business tax for homegrown businesses, I.e. BC/Vancouver business with 3 franchises or less and an increase taxes for corporations like Starbucks.

      If you ever go to Tofino, you will notice there is a law banning corporations like Starbucks or any large, non-BC company within its town and it’s wonderful to see locals thriving on their businesses.

    • Agreed. My favourite coffee shop on 13th and Main will eventually be taken out by Starbucks.

      I am going to push a reduction in small business tax for homegrown businesses, I.e. BC/Vancouver business with 3 franchises or less and an increase taxes for corporations like Starbucks.

      If you ever go to Tofino, you will notice there is a law banning corporations like Starbucks or any large, non-BC company within its town and it’s wonderful to see locals thriving on their businesses.

  2. JJ says:

    Yes, we need more available rents in this city. However, if people are having a hard time finding affordable rentals, what’s to say that these airbnb short term rentals will be affordable if they come on to market as long term rentals? Building more affordable housing will help tremendously.

  3. RR says:

    I agree with JJ, Airbnb is a result of the unaffordable housing. The most regulating Airbnb will do is release a very small handful of apartments on the market and they’ll still be unaffordable ($1800/month for a one bedroom) Plus now we create an expensive a whack-a-mole situation for the city that will need endless amounts of money trying to police.

    I agree with finding a solution but I don’t think we are going about it the right way. Reaching for the lowest hanging fruit (Airbnb) won’t bring change. It just gives the impression of it and makes for good reading.
    I think taxing short-term rentals would be more helpful.

    All in all, the real focus should be on regulating this developer and real-estate playground we’ve created. Our housing “stock market” is what’s pushing us renters out, not Airbnb. The developers and real-estate industry really do have all the power. It’s time we take some of it back.

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