Saanich to study controversial rentals

Council Monday debated short-term rentals as Victoria considers new bylaw

Saanich might take a closer look at short-term rentals, a controversial subject as recent developments in the City of Victoria show.

Council Monday agreed to send the issue to the next strategic plan update to see how it fits among local priorities. This decision follows a recommendation from Saanich’s planning, transportation, and economic development advisory committee, whose members noted among other points that Saanich lacks a policy that addresses what the committee calls the “growing short-term rental activity” in Saanich.

No universal definition exists, but short-term rentals generally describe rental accommodations that last for less than 30 days. They often take the forms of vacation rentals that allow home-owners to rent out parts of their homes through services like Airbnb and VRBO.

No formal statistics exist, but Coun. Judy Brownoff said a recent Internet research revealed 200 Airbnbs in Saanich.

Coun. Fred Haynes said it is timely for Saanich to study this issue in light of local, evolving housing needs.

Mayor Richard Atwell, Couns. Karen Harper, Colin Plant and Leif Wergeland opposed the motion. Atwell suggested that the pace of events — especially in Victoria — might make Saanich’s interest in this subject academic. Plant, meanwhile, said that the issue of short-term rentals might not be as pressing in Saanich — a suburban community — than in Victoria.

Scholars have shown that short-term rentals have decreased housing affordability, because they offer a quicker and higher rates of return, a point Coun. Vickie Sanders echoed. In fact, such accommodations have appeared in her very neighbourhood, prompting concerns, she said.

A 2017 study by the University of McGill titled “Short-term cities” found Airbnb has removed as many as 13,700 housing units from rental markets in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. “In some areas this represents more than than two per cent of the total housing stock — number comparable to the rental vacancy rate in the three cities.”

The report also notes that short-term rentals “often operate in legal grey zones, able to avoid to existing accommodation regulations and taxes, and are now increasingly targeted with specific regulations.”

Brownoff spoke to this point, when she said that local bed-and-breakfast operators deserve some legislative clarity as a matter of fairness.

Yet at same time, short-term rentals generate considerable economic activity. According to the University of McGill study, Airbnb hosts in Canada’s largest three metropolitan regions earned $430 million in revenue last year, an average of $5,300 per listing.

Locally, the issue of short-term rentals has sparked considerable controversy in the neighbouring City of Victoria, where staff are currently reviewing public feedback for a bylaw that would tighten existing regulations.

Victoria is pushing ahead with these changes because it is “concerned about the availability of housing” for Victoria residents. “However, it also acknowledges that short term rentals can be a valuable part of the local economy. Therefore, the proposed changes are to allow short term rental in ways that will not affect the availability of long-term rental housing.”

To help its case, Victoria has recently hired a contractor to study short term rentals against the backdrop of a looming battle with short-term rental owners who want to benefit from them.

Victoria currently permits home owners of single-family dwellings to rent out up to two bedrooms in an occupied home with shared kitchen and living spaces. Victoria may also allow short term rentals as a legal non-conforming use in areas zoned for transient accommodations following changes in September.

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