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Richmond votes to ban short-term rentals

While Whistler unlikely to follow suit, both communities looking to streamline enforcement efforts

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Richmond city councillors voted last week to prohibit short-term housing rentals, but Whistler's mayor said the resort is unlikely to take a similar approach.

Initially, Richmond officials approved a plan that would have licensed short-term rentals, permitting them in an owner's primary residence. But, a week later, councillors reversed course, voting unanimously to ban all short-term rentals except licensed hotels, motels and B&Bs. A staff report on what this prohibition will look like is currently in the works.

Richmond council said the move was in response to significant negative feedback from residents — the City received approximately 100 complaints related to suspected short-term rentals in 2016.

"We had a lot of public opinion... and that reflected the impacts that short-term rentals are having on our neighbourhoods," said Mayor Malcolm Brodie. "It's just generally detracted from the quiet neighbourhoods filled with families that we want to promote."

Richmond has been hit hard by the proliferation of home-sharing services like Airbnb, with less than one per cent of its housing stock made up of long-term rentals. As of Nov. 16, there were approximately 1,586 short-term rental listings in the city, and only 17 licensed B&Bs.

"Effectively our market has totally been dried up. The cost of housing has gone up. Our long-term residents are complaining because their assessments went up by 46 per cent (for example) on a single-family house. We've got seniors that are worried about paying their taxes," said Coun. Harold Steves. "This just shouldn't happen."

How exactly Richmond will enforce the ban remains to be seen, but Monday's vote comes with the addition of three new inspectors to crack down on existing illegal house-hotels. The City will also begin contacting house-hotels listed online to ensure compliance, and council has discussed implementing stiffer fines of up to $1,000 a day for those operating without a proper license.

"We don't have enough people working for us to look after the complaints," explained Steves. "Instead of it going by complaints, we'll be investigating every (suspected illegal) unit we find."

And while Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she prefers regulation to prohibition, officials from both communities agree on the need to streamline their enforcement efforts.

The challenge under the current regulations in Richmond, as well as Whistler, is the time and cost of taking homeowners to court for violating zoning bylaws. The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) recently filed a notice of civil claim against a homeowner in Alpine suspected of renting her property out on Airbnb, and Wilhelm-Morden conceded the legal costs were "not cheap."

"We're prepared to take any further legal action against any other owners using their property illegally," she added. "In the meantime, though, we are also looking at amending our regulations and making requirements for business licenses so that it's a less onerous and costly proceeding for effectively getting the same ends."

In October, the RMOW announced the formation of the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing, and one of the group's immediate aims is to step up enforcement on illegal nightly rentals.

The task force has also solicited input from stakeholders and the wider public.

Sue Chappel, founder and CEO of vacation resort rental site alluraDirect, has provided the group with a list of recommendations she believes will help curb the problem. Her main piece of advice? Stiffen penalties.

"I'd like to see fines put into place that are in line with the financial motivations. If the fine is only $100 or $200 or even $1,000, it doesn't make a difference," she said. Chappel suggested instituting a $10,000 fine per illegal booking. She also recommended hiring additional bylaw officers who would patrol online listing sites for possible offenders. (The municipality has discussed increasing fines as well as adding bylaw officers to help with enforcement.)

But, as Wilhelm-Morden explained, cracking down on violations under current guidelines isn't as easy as simply having a bylaw officer book a suspected illegal nightly rental online.

"There's a whole process you have to go through: finding the ad, booking the property, attending the property and stepping into the property, so you have to build all this evidence. It's an onerous way of proceeding," she said, which is why the RMOW plans to amend its business licensing and regulation bylaw.

Communities have had to get creative in regulating short-term rentals as they've watched popular home-sharing sites take a bite out of affordable housing stock. After years of haggling with Airbnb, in November the City of San Francisco ruled that hosts can rent out their properties for only 60 days per calendar year.

The same month, Airbnb dropped a lawsuit against New York City over a bill intended to outlaw advertising short-term rentals in buildings occupied by three or more families independently. The bill allows authorities to issue up to $7,500 in fines for properties listed on Airbnb and similar sites.

Wilhelm-Morden said it's an approach that could be worth exploring.

"We're open to every suggestion because at the end of the day what we want to do is ensure that our properties here in Whistler are being used for what they're zoned for."

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