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RMOW to investigate 'illegal' rental properties

Illegal rental units drawing ire of legally zoned owner, hotel association



A local accommodation property owner is speaking out against alleged illegal nightly rental units in the resort, and is asking the municipality to take action.

Madeleine Hamilton has owned a number of legally zoned nightly rental properties in Whistler for 15 years, and after losing a recent booking to an illegal unit, she compiled a list of 50 rental properties that are allegedly in contravention of their zoning. Last week, she submitted the list to the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) Bylaw Services Department requesting enforcement.

"As a homeowner who's seen a significant decline in retail value since 2008... and the fact that the fees associated with having a legally zoned property just aren't being covered anymore, I think it's about time the municipality closed these places down so the revenue goes to who it should go to," she said. "It's been 15 years and it still hasn't been rectified. I've done the homework and given (the RMOW) all the information."

Hamilton said she pays around $5,000 annually to Tourism Whistler (TW) in commercial and marketing fees for her rental property. Beyond making it more difficult to cover costs, however, she said illegal nightly units result in declining resort property values and pose a greater safety risk for guests, a concern shared by Hotel Association of Whistler president and Hilton general manager Stephen Webb.

"There's a safety and security issue if these (illegal rental properties) haven't been licensed or inspected to house as many people as they may be housing," he said.

Webb has met officials from the municipality and Tourism Whistler to discuss ways to tackle this issue, he said.

"I feel like (the municipality) is probably not aware of the size of this issue, and maybe this will help," he said. "Our approach as an association is (achieving) a level playing field, as far as tax and other regulation is concerned."

The RMOW deals with illegal rental units on a complaint-by-complaint basis, said acting mayor John Grills. If a property is found to be in contravention of local bylaws, a complaint letter is issued to the owner with a 30-day window for compliance. If the matter is still not rectified, a second letter is issued with another 30 days for compliance, followed by a request via administrative report that council consider a Supreme Court injunction against the property owner. Since this policy was created, a $1,000 fine for use contrary to zoning has also been introduced, which can be imposed at any point, according to the RMOW. In many cases, property owners are unaware that nightly rentals require the proper zoning, and the letters of complaint are usually enough to prompt compliance.

"From my point of view, it's important that a property is zoned and that you have a legal operation; not only to make sure everyone's playing a fair game, but also for the safety of the guests," Grills said.

He noted this is an issue that has only recently come to council's attention.

Tourism Whistler, which does not have the mandate or jurisdiction to enforce zoning regulations, has seen the impact illegal nightly rental units has had on resort accommodation, said president Barrett Fisher.

"Ultimately, it increases the capacity of inventory that Whistler believes it has for nightly tourism rentals beyond what was planned for the resort," she said. "It inflates the volume of tourist accommodations beyond what may be sustainable."

Accommodation listing services like Airbnb, Owner Direct Vacation Rentals and HomeAway Canada have led to the proliferation of illegal properties advertised in Whistler, according to Hamilton, who said these companies require property owners to sign an agreement stating they will comply with local bylaws, meaning many have allegedly provided false declarations.

Fisher said it's important to note that many of the rentals promoted on these websites are legitimate, but that resort accommodation partners believe "this issue is growing because of the very nature of those websites that are promoting some of these vacation properties by owner."

She said Tourism Whistler is willing to work with partners to review owner-direct rental websites to establish the scope of the problem and determine action, if necessary.

A petition on illegal rentals in Whistler is at