A Vancouver developer has tapped into a novel way to save one of the district’s mid-century modern heritage houses, and still make a profit from his investment.
As part of a heritage revitalization agreement (HRA) with the district of West Vancouver, developer Ross Bonetti is using the short-term rental service Airbnb to save the 1952 Ron Thom house – known as the Boyd House, at 985 Duchess Ave., West Vancouver. The plan is to subdivide the property into two lots, build a new house on the lower portion and sell it off, says Mr. Bonetti, who is the long-time owner of Livingspace furniture store and more recently, the president of Livingspace Homes, a residential construction and renovation company. He will then hold onto and rent out the entire Boyd House as an Airbnb rental.
“It’s something that just came up, and was presented to us. We knew it was for sale, and when we looked at the property we thought, ‘wow this is worth saving,’” Mr. Bonetti says. “We ran some numbers and thought we could do this. It’s probably more profitable to tear it down, but we were able to get through [the process] and we were able to save the house. I would say it’s almost 100-per-cent certain it would have been torn down with another buyer.”
The developer plans to do some updates and fully furnish the Thom house and create a unique experience for guests of the four-bedroom, 1,900-square-foot home. He will rent it on Airbnb for around $500 a night, he says, and will also use it as accommodation for business contacts, such as suppliers from Italy.
In Palm Springs, Calif., the short-term rental of fully furnished mid-century homes decorated in their full populuxe glory is a well-established little industry.
“Not only have we had great success working with the district, but also the community was on board, through the council meetings, to save these houses,” Mr. Bonetti says. “What the district wants is they want it as a nightly rental that they have granted us for this house, because they want people to stay in it and experience it.”
The house has been operating as a short-term rental for the last year, although business has slowed throughout the pandemic. The Boyd House is positioned on a steep lot with Lion’s Gate Bridge views, and because the new house will sit low enough on the property, its view won’t be obstructed. Two years ago, Mr. Bonetti’s company paid $2.6-million for the entire 9,000-square-foot property.
He will soon list the newly divided lot on the market. The price tag of $3.8-million includes construction of the architect-designed, three-storey 3,800-square-foot house. Ideally, the buyer will hire his company to build it.
Most municipalities have clamped down on short-term rentals, which remove long-term rental housing from the market and contribute to a low vacancy rate.
Short-term rental is not permitted in West Vancouver, but in order to save the architecturally important houses, the district’s economic development plan makes an exception for houses of historical importance. It’s a way of making the numbers work for developers, because the mid-century homes are usually too small by today’s standards.
“Even if it’s fixed up and in good shape it’s not as saleable sometimes because you have a smaller market than what you would have if you tore down that Ron Thom house and built a 6,000-square-foot house,” Mr. Bonetti says. “And there’s more profit for a developer if he builds a bigger house. That’s the way most developers look at it.
“And even though our site by code wouldn’t be large enough to subdivide, they worked with us on the square footage to make everything work, because they do want to save these houses. And they are looking for developers like us that have the insight and the passion to work on that.”
The Boyd House is one of six Ron Thom houses that remain after the demolition of many mid-century houses in West Vancouver. The exact loss of such homes across the region is nearly impossible to estimate, says heritage consultant Don Luxton.
“The erosion has been immense,” he said. “Just looking at heritage inventories is scary.”
Mr. Luxton gives the idea of saving a heritage home by allowing it to be used as a short-term rental a thumbs-up.
“As far as I know, this is a unique solution – and highly supportable.”
Short-term rental is defined as accommodation rented for less than 30 days. In Vancouver, short-term rental is illegal for an entire home. The rental unit must be part of a principal residence where the host lives.
“We do not have any plans to allow heritage homes that are not principal residences to be operated as short-term rentals,” Kathryn Holm, chief licence inspector, said in an email.
Victoria, which has a lot of heritage houses, does not allow them to be rented short-term. However, the city incentivizes owners to preserve the historic houses by allowing multi-family rental and condo conversions, and subdivisions of properties.
The District of West Vancouver has been “pretty creative” in adopting the heritage revitalization agreements to protect homes, says Jim Bailey, director of planning, land development and permits. Because the house had been placed on the community heritage register in 2012, it qualified for municipal heritage conservation incentives. The HRA is a conservation agreement between property owner and the district to protect the house.
“Council is really supportive of providing those incentives that make sense to protect what is seen as an important asset in the community,” says Jim Bailey, director of planning, land development and permits for the District of West Vancouver. “And this is a really cool house,” he adds, originally built for Bruce and Joan Boyd, who were students of Ron Thom’s.
The provision to allow short-term rental as an incentive for heritage preservation is part of the district’s economic development plan. Otherwise, short-term rental is illegal in West Vancouver, Mr. Bailey says.
“West Vancouver clearly has an affordability problem, and I think short-term rental does create some challenges for providing a healthy rental stock. So a lot of the issues Vancouver was facing, we have similar concerns that have been expressed.
“We are always mindful of making sure that homes are there for people to live in, and to provide more affordability.”
Understandably, there were also conversations involving the neighbours, concerned about potential noise from a house full of people on vacation. The developer had to enter into an agreement that had many stipulations around the rental property.
“As the director of planning, I have the discretion to act reasonably to safeguard the peace of the surrounding neighbourhood, so if there are parties and whatnot I can basically shut down the rental accommodation,” Mr. Bailey says. “There are a number of rules, not overly onerous, but he agreed to a number of things with regard to the guests and rental accommodation, that they respect the house.”
Council also relaxed a number of zoning bylaw provisions to allow for the new house on the property, which is the biggest economic incentive. The fact that the house is available to the public, either as a vacation rental or for a heritage tour, makes it a community asset.
“You see it in places like Palm Springs, where you can go and rent these cool west coast modern houses, and provide for people to have that experience in these homes,” Mr. Bailey says. “It raises the profile of heritage, and I think it raises the appreciation of it.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for people to experience the house. And hopefully, you engender a broader understanding and appreciation for heritage in the community. It’s a great tool, I think.”
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