Lisa Johnson-Stott was not impressed to get an email from Airbnb ahead of a public hearing related to business licenses for nightly rentals in Whistler.
The email — sent to all homeowners with listings on the website — asked Airbnb hosts to urge the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) to reconsider regulations that ban home sharing in residential neighbourhoods.
"I was very angry because I thought, 'here is a foreign-based company that has no idea whatsoever about what our local issues are,' and for me, the bottom line with Airbnb is (they are) all about their money, their balance sheet, and I just thought that that was just really interfering in something that is so important in our local community," said Johnson-Stott, who received the email because she owns a legal, nightly rental property and manages three others.
Johnson-Stott, a local realtor, attended the public hearing on June 6 to speak in favour of the RMOW's proposal to require nightly rentals to have business licenses.
"I think it's a first step to safeguarding the zoning in the resort, and to put an end, hopefully, to the people that are doing it illegally," she said.
"I have seen a decline in booking requests recently and more disturbing, I regularly get automated emails from Airbnb advising me that as a result of their 'built-in algorithms' there are 'similar' places in Whistler renting for less — and then they go on to advise me that if I dropped the price significantly, I would get more bookings," she added in a follow-up email.
The problem of illegal rentals is nothing new — only exacerbated in recent years with the rise of home-sharing sites, she said.
"We've got to put a stop to this, not just from the point of view of myself as a legal homeowner, and the hotels, but also just realizing it's going to destabilize the community, and we've got this critical situation now with a lack of employee accommodation," Johnson-Stott said.
THE AGE OF THE SHARING ECONOMY
Sylvia Koltzenburg, an Airbnb host against whom the RMOW filed a notice of civil claim in January, also received the email.
She spoke in favour of nightly rentals at the public hearing.
"Home sharing is driving millions of dollars of economic activity into cities around the world. Home sharing provides many of Whistler's guests with an affordable, comfortable place to stay while enjoying everything our mountain town has to offer. As a top travel destination, Whistler can also reap all of the economic benefits home sharing provides," she said.
Koltzenburg said she has had "both wonderful and disastrous experiences" renting her five-bedroom chalet and one-bedroom suite over the years, adding that she has spent more than $250,000 on repairs over the past 10 years.
"The suite has been trashed time and again by high turnover of seasonal residents who have no regard for private property; one group turned it into a brothel, another, a drug-distribution centre — when the police came to evict them, we found $60,000 cash taped behind the fridge," Koltzenburg said.
"I know many of you are familiar with the horror stories of rentals."
Koltzenburg closed by asking the RMOW to reconsider banning home sharing in residential neighbourhoods.
"Surely this is not an all-or-none situation? I want to be cautiously optimistic that there is a happy medium — I agree that business licenses are a good start," she said, suggesting that maybe homeowners be restricted to a specific number of days per year or allowing rentals during peak holidays.
"We are living in the age of a 'sharing economy.' Home sharing is a win-win for the Whistler community at large."
PHASE 1 AND 2 CONDOS AFFECTED
Matt Hick, CEO and owner of local vacation rental website alluraDirect, was also at the public hearing.
While Hick said he's in favour of a licensing mechanism for legally zoned short-term rentals, he'd like some clarity on the RMOW's long-term goal.
"If it is to simply identify the legal rental inventory, Tourism Whistler should already know who is paying the commercial assessment fee. If it is to streamline enforcement for illegal rentals in residential neighborhoods, I understand that and agree," he said in an email.
"If it's a tactic to help remove illegal listings on websites like Airbnb unless a license is displayed, that is a good step forward but will ultimately become a resource/time burden that won't have much long-term effect. There are dozens of websites that advertise illegal rentals, the inventory will simply move to the next website that won't be as available to the cities they operate in."
Illegal nightly rentals are also unfair to owners of Phase 1 and 2 properties who pay Tourism Whistler fees to help market the resort, Hick said.
"Illegal property rentals receive the benefit of this marketing without having to pay into it, and also reduce the number of reservations in the legally zoned units which do pay into it," he said.
But there are two groups of tourists that may be adversely affected by restricting nightly rentals, he added: corporate retreat groups looking for larger accommodation and world travellers who prefer a local host.
"I am against the residential illegal short-term rentals for sure, but there has to be an answer for those type of things," he said.
"(For) the groups of 20 people that want to get a chalet or something, there really isn't much inventory."
In an emailed statement, Airbnb said it supports regulation that is "fair and reasonable," and that the company feels it's important to share data and information with communities to help them understand how residents are using the platform and how it benefits the economy.
"As a community that welcomes a high volume of tourists and seasonal workers, Whistler is addressing their unique needs. Vacation rentals have long been a part of the community. Hosts bring valuable economic benefits and should have a regulated, but clear, path to operating," said Airbnb's public policy manager for Canada Alex Dagg in the statement.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the municipality of Whistler to ensure a healthy home-sharing community that allows hosts to benefit from our platform by earning modest, supplemental income each month."
ENFORCEMENT TOOLS GET BOOST
The RMOW said the business license bylaw would increase its enforcement tools by allowing staff to use marketing evidence to issue tickets.
"Currently, the Bylaw Services department needs to prove that a nightly rental occurred and requires evidence, such as a witnesses corroborating the offence, to issue a Municipal Information Ticket," an RMOW spokesperson said in an email, adding that staff will be able to issue $1,000 tickets for operating without a business license once the new bylaw is passed.
"The bylaw department is primarily complaint driven and we encourage the public to make formal complaints by calling 604-935-8280 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org."
Airbnb staff has not indicated to the RMOW that they will be sharing specific listings or that they will make business licenses mandatory for listing on their site.
"We are open to continuing discussions with them," the RMOW said.
"It should be noted that Whistler has a large supply of properties that are zoned for legal nightly rentals that may utilize Airbnb as their booking channel."
The base fee for an RMOW business license is $165.
The bylaw is slated for first readings at the June 20 council meeting.