A conversation about short-term rentals


A hypothetical example:

A young working couple struggles to pay the mortgage on a high-priced Vancouver-area home. They build a basement apartment, to code. They find a tenant and declare their rental income to Canada Revenue. The tenant causes trouble, and the B.C. Rental Tenancy Act makes the eviction slow and stressful.

Vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver, fall 2015. This map was not provided

Vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver, fall 2015 (CMHC) with irrelevant census code numbers. This map was  not shown in the fall 2016 report but the numbers were almost unchanged.

So they think: why not rent our apartment to tourists or business people online, through Airbnb? We’d probably make more money, and the agency will pay for any damages if there’s trouble.

It’s a choice that many people are making, and a trend that may be reducing housing availability in an already tight rental market. City councillors from four suburban Metro Vancouver communities recently hosted a panel discussion to consider the issue.

One panelist, Tourism New Westminster’s Tej Kainth, has a job welcoming visitors to her city. She has surveyed the overnight rental listings, and at the summertime peak recorded as many as 300 for New West alone. That’s one short-stay apartment for every 200 permanent residents. She noted that with only 167 hotel units, New Westminster is far short of the accommodation it needs to handle tourists, sports tournament participants, business travellers and family visitors.

Panelist Lindsay Ferguson spoke as a homeowner and host whose overnight unit would not (she said) be suitable for a long-term resident. She’s also a cafe owner, and she expressed support for registering and taxing short-term rentals as a way to maintain standards and ensure a positive experience for tourists.

Iain Marjoribanks. Victoria Times-Colonist photo

Iain Marjoribanks. Victoria Times-Colonist photo

Panelist Iain Marjoribanks of the University of British Columbia has written a study of Airbnb operations in the City of Vancouver. In his scan of December 3 2015, he found 4,728 listings, or about one for every 125 permanent residents. Vancouver City, by the way, has about a quarter of the region’s population; it’s the tourist centre, but it’s not the only place where visitors go (think sports teams or families, for example.)

The Airbnb study, widely reported when Marjoribanks released it in June 2016, points out that short-term rentals (less than 30 days) violate Vancouver’s zoning bylaws, except for licensed bed and breakfast businesses. Most Airbnb revenues in the study sample flowed to unlicensed commercial operators, some with 20 properties or more, all of them free from regulation, official inspection or commercial taxation. Airbnb, by coincidence, launched a soft-focus TV ad campaign soon after this, to assure us that its hosts are regular folks; however, the agency also announced in November that it was pulling some openly commercial properties from its Vancouver listings.

In the panel discussion, Marjoribanks suggested that cities should look for a middle path between prohibiting overnight rentals and giving them an open field. The first step would be to measure the scope of the issue by requiring hosts to register with local authorities. This would allow city governments to set limits on the scale of overnight hosting along residential streets. He cautioned, however, that Airbnb has resisted collaboration in this kind of registration.

The question remains: is the overnight rental market squeezing out long-term tenants? Marjoribanks declined to provide an estimate on the total size of the overnight market region-wide, but we can suggest a guesstimate here.

A regional housing data book from 2010 set the number of rental households in Metro Vancouver at 300,000. Only about 100,000 households, drawing from federal reports, are living in purpose-built rental housing. The other 200,000+ are scattered through condo towers, townhome complexes or reconfigured houses. From the information provided by the panel, it’s certainly conceivable that there are 6,000 dedicated short-term units region-wide, or 3 per cent of the dispersed rental stock. Current rental vacancy rates, as shown on the map insert above, are often below 1 per cent.

So yes, there could be an impact, and there are reasons to expect the number of dedicated short-term units to keep growing. Tourism Vancouver reports that visitors to Metro Vancouver logged a record 9.3 million sleeps in 2015, an all-time high. Online booking is getting easier, and bunking in with strangers, as Marjoribanks’ study noted, is now a mainstream thing to do. City governments, alert to these trends, are beginning to study the size and implications of the issue.

The evening at New West’s Network Hub was organized under the flag of Metro Conversations. Councillors Mathew Bond (District of North Vancouver), Nathan Pachal (City of Langley), Patrick Johnston (New Westminster) and Kiersten Duncan (Maple Ridge) want to host a series of events on issues that matter to suburban residents. There’s been a big gap in this level of discussion, and the new suburban caucus deserves credit for taking it on.

Bong, Pachal, Johnstone, Duncan

Bond, Pachal, Johnstone, Duncan

Steveston village: this ain’t Manhattan


The neighbourhood business association promotes Steveston as a place to visit, with its waterfront, cafes and gift shops. Co-tourist Robert Smarz and I walked the  ocean-facing pathway on the west side of the community and enjoyed lunch at the Shady Island pub on the boardwalk; we didn’t have time to stop at the Georgia Cannery National Historic Site, so there’s more to see.

development-reducedBut the designated core is attracting new residents as well as visitors, part of a general upscaling of Vancouver-area real estate. Postwar bungalows on the back streets are disappearing in favour of low-rise apartment buildings of three and four storeys. There are now enough essential services in place — such as food markets and professional offices — to make this a livable urban village with an affluent tinge. The elevated train to downtown Vancouver is about 20 minutes away by bus, and service is frequent.

The City of Richmond’s 2009 area plan sets development restrictions that are intended to maintain a heritage flavour in the core area and the modest scale of the street-facing shops. The economic driver for the original village, the working harbour and adjacent industrial lands, is under some stress; you still see a large fishing fleet moored near the boardwalk, but the harbour-related industrial properties are being converted for mixed use with housing, more shops and parking garages.

If you’re leaving old Steveston in your own vehicle, you may find a severe traffic backup eastbound on Steveston Highway. This is related to the snarl-up at the entrance to the George Massey Tunnel on Highway 99, a problem that is to be addressed with a planned replacement of the tunnel by about 2022. The City is opposed to the provincial government’s 10-lane bridge scheme for environmental and planning reasons, but at this point the government is forging ahead.

[This is post #34 in our Urban Villages series.]

Detail from the municipal area plan, 2009

Detail from the municipal area plan, 2009. The shaded area is subject to a two-storey height limit.


Recent mixed-use development, Chatham Street

Steveston boardwalk, late Friday morning

Steveston boardwalk, late Friday morning

A grouping of statues of fish cannery workers outside the Cannery museum. The two-storey building in the background is recent.

A grouping of statues of fish cannery workers outside the Cannery museum. The two-storey building in the background is recent, but done out in quasi-heritage style.

Community meeting space at a townhome complex west of the core

Community meeting space at a townhome complex west of the core, c. 1975

The end of the world -- looking west and south to Vancouver Island from the edge of Steveston

The end of the world — looking west and south to Vancouver Island from the edge of Steveston

The Evergreen Line and tower development

Skytrain-oriented development at Suter Brook, Port Moody, October 2016

SkyTrain-oriented development at Suter Brook, Port Moody, October 2016

A developer's rendering of the

Burnaby’s “City of Lougheed” project, captured from a real estate site. The Evergreen Line enters from the right to join the existing Millennium Line.

Metro Vancouver’s Evergreen rapid transit line is set to open before the end of 2016. Planning for this SkyTrain link to deep Coquitlam started almost 20 years ago, and residential towers sprang up almost immediately near the proposed route, beginning with Newport and Suter Brook in Port Moody. The Coquitlam Centre precinct was rapidly densified and complexified through the 2000s. We recently saw the astonishing announcement of a 23-tower project at Lougheed Town Centre site in Burnaby, rising to heights of 65 storeys, with a potential for 11,000 apartment units. And it ain’t over yet. Continue reading

Managing traffic through New Westminster

Pattullo Bridge, Saturday afternoon

Pattullo Bridge, Saturday afternoon

New Westminster within the region, from the New West Master Transportation Plan

New Westminster within the region, from the New West Master Transportation Plan

New Westminster is at the crossroads of Metro Vancouver, with commuter traffic  pouring through from all directions and industrial zones in neighbouring cities around more than half its perimeter

The city government’s 2014 Master Transportation Plan reports 75,000 vehicles per day on the Pattullo crossing of the Fraser River, and 80,000 on the Queensborough crossing. This compares with fewer than 63,000 on the Lions Gate Bridge and fewer than 45,000 at the north end of the Massey Tunnel (provincial estimates for the same year.) Continue reading

Phasing in a transit spending plan

Detail from the September 2016 TransLink mayors' Phase One announcement. This shows promised bus service improvements in Surrey including immediate rapid bus service on Fraser Highway.

Detail from the September 2016 TransLink mayors’ Phase One announcement.  This shows promised bus service improvements in Surrey including immediate rapid bus service on Fraser Highway.

The latest announcement on transit from Metro Vancouver mayors is their first major effort to regroup since voters shot down the idea of a transit sales tax in 2015.

This matters because the mayors and British Columbia’s provincial governments have been deadlocked for years on how to fund transit, and demand for service has outrun supply on key routes. Affordable public transit supports labour mobility, educational opportunity, independence and self-reliance for seniors and teens, and growth for pedestrian-focused urban villages, and it also reduces the number of cars on the road. Continue reading

Lynn Valley Town Centre: from humble beginnings

Intersection of Lynn Valley Road and Mountain Highway. The "Lynn Valley Life" community website says the structure on the right dates from 1912 and is the only commercial building left from the original settlement. The photo is from realestatenorthshore.com

Mountain Highway at Lynn Valley Road. The “Lynn Valley Life” site says the structure on the right, dating from 1912, is the only surviving commercial building from the original settlement. The photo is from realestatenorthshore.com

In the 400-page official plan of the District of North Vancouver, Lynn Valley’s commercial area is the designated “municipal town centre.”

On the first pass, this town centre is a crossroads row of shops flanked by gas stations and strip malls. And to an outsider, it seems an odd location for the action centre in a municipality of 80,000 people. It’s closer to bear habitat than to the Municipal Hall or the District’s busiest east-west street. But there are services and public amenities tucked away in various corners, and rapid new development may bring transformation over the next three to five years. Continue reading

The Traboulay-PoCo Trail

The Traboulay PoCo Trail alongside the DeBoville Slough, Port Coquitlam

By the DeBoville Slough, Port Coquitlam

As an easy but interesting and varied urban bike trail, the Traboulay-PoCo Trail in Port Coquitlam measures up to anything I’ve experienced in Canada. This 25-kilometre loop passes alongside five different bodies of water. It’s virtually 100 per cent separated from traffic, with only occasional road crossings.

I was reminded of this route when I purchased a book called Easy Cycling Around Vancouver  as part of a plan to spend more time on my bike. None of the trails in the book are in Vancouver, if that matters; they’re all in the suburbs or beyond. The mountains, rivers and inlets that carve up our region are a barrier to car commuting, but they’ve helped planners and local governments build a remarkable inventory of recreational multi-use trails for the use of residents and visitors. Suburban cities like Port Coquitlam are working hard to make their downtown villages complete and attractive; a facility like the PoCo Trail connects neighbourhoods with the downtown, and puts the outdoors at the doorstep of downtown residents. Continue reading