Nearly half of the short-term rentals listed in Vancouver haven’t obtained licences under new rules that took effect last year, prompting the city to issue warning letters, levy fines and conduct inspections of hundreds of properties.
But city officials say they see the enforcement activities as a sign the housing phenomenon that has become a battleground in many cities is being brought under control.
“The early results of enforcement in the first six months of our new short-term rentals program are encouraging,” Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in a news release. One operator with 35 listings was fined $20,000.
The city imposed new restrictions on services such as Airbnb last year to address concerns they were affecting the region’s tight rental market. As of last April, short-term rental operators must have a business licence and can only rent out their primary residences.
City statistics say there were 4,720 short-term rental listings in March of this year, up slightly from the nearly 4,600 in December. Of those, only 2,628 have licences. So far this year, 17 licences have been suspended, 89 listings were referred to prosecution and 274 violation tickets were sent out.
Critics say Vancouver is never going to get real control of the Airbnb-style of listing private homes as travel accommodations because its agreement with Airbnb is too weak.
“I don’t see any evidence that Vancouver’s regulations are having a serious impact. Vancouver seems to be trying to deal with this, but there are too many loopholes,” said McGill University Professor David Wachsmuth, who has been studying the evolution of Airbnb in many cities.
He said the memorandum of understanding that city officials negotiated with Airbnb puts the onus on the city to track down offenders, who seem to find new ways to get around the law every day.
Airbnb will still put up a listing even if there is a false business-licence number or even none at all.
It’s something cities around the world are dealing with, Professor Wachsmuth said.
“Actually, there are very few cities that have managed to make a serious dent in problematic short-term rentals. San Francisco was held up as an early example of effective regulations, but our research has found that the full-time commercial operators were barely affected at all,” he said. “All these cities struggle with getting the information they need to apply their laws effectively.”
The only cities that are potentially making headway are New York, Santa Monica, and Boston, he said, whose efforts to control short-term rentals are so energetic that Airbnb is suing them over their policies.
Advocates who monitor local vacation rentals say there appear to be endless loopholes that operators can use to get around Vancouver’s rules.
“What pops to mind is Whac-A-Mole,” said Ulrike Rodrigues, an East Vancouver tenant who has been fighting the Airbnb effect in her rental building for years.
“We’re putting together a report with other citizens on the observed gaps and loopholes. I’ve counted 30 already.”
She has noticed that an operator will use the same business-licence number for multiple properties or they will claim on their listing that the rental site is in a suburb outside Vancouver, when it isn’t.
Another anti-short-term rental activist, Rohana Rezel, said he has developed a tool that last month allowed him to uncover more than 800 properties without licences, and he’s baffled that the city is taking so long to get their listings removed.
He believes that at a minimum, the city needs to have an automated system that checks on business licences so that fake and duplicated numbers would be flagged.