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B.C. politicians dealing with competing interests in Airbnb debate

Lindsay Kaisaris says she brings in about $3,000 a month by renting rooms through Airbnb.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Lindsay Kaisaris wonders what would have happened to her life and her business without Airbnb.

Ms. Kaisaris and her husband found themselves with a new baby, a new house in New Westminster and a food-truck-turned-restaurant four years ago. Everything turned out to be more expensive and difficult than they'd expected.

She had thought of renting out a room to home-stay students as a way of paying all the bills. But that wasn't going to bring in enough money to close the gap.

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A friend told her about Airbnb. She'd never heard of the hugely popular platform that allows anyone to rent their home or part of it. She looked it up on the Internet, fixed up a basement room in her 1892 house, posted it and started getting guests instantly.

"It has saved our business and our home and has contributed to our community in more than a hundred ways," Ms. Kaisaris said. "And we feel like we're filling a void."

Ms. Kaisaris, along with many of the other thousands in Metro Vancouver now offering rentals through Airbnb, are one more challenging piece of the puzzle that local politicians are having to grapple with as they try to sort out how to regulate this new phenomenon.

In the City of Vancouver, Councillor Geoff Meggs has been driving a new initiative to have city staff collect much more information about the size and impact on the city of Airbnb rentals, which now stand around the 5,000 mark.

And he's been suggesting the whole region, not just Vancouver, needs a new, consistent bylaw to regulate short-term rentals.

"I don't know how it will turn out," said the councillor, whose motion asking for more information on possible policy solutions will be heard at council Wednesday.

But he said local cities need something more than what they already have: bylaws prohibiting rentals for less than 30 days, except for licensed hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.

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Mr. Meggs frequently gets asked whether it's unfair to take away the power to rent through Airbnb for the region's renters and owners who are paying huge housing costs.

He doesn't think so.

"I think we have to put the protection of the rental stock ahead of individuals," Mr. Meggs said.

He has some strong public opinion behind him. A Facebook group called "Stop Illegal Airbnb" has been pushing on the issue vocally in recent months.

Another Vancouver resident, Ulrike Rodrigues, has become the city's best-known warrior on the issue, after she discovered two years ago that three condo units in her building were being rented through Airbnb. (It's up to 10 now.)

And an SFU graduate student, Karen Sawatzky, highlighted the problem last year, when she documented the number of Airbnb rentals in the region at 4,627 by June of last year (three-quarters were in Vancouver).

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She and the others expressing their worry about Airbnb are concerned about what the loss of rental housing means in a region where the vacancy rate is under 1 per cent. Ms. Sawaktzy said that even people who are renting out spare rooms part-time are taking away needed housing.

But some Airbnb hosts – the approximately one-third who are only renting a room in their homes or are renting their whole homes only when they are out of town – say they're worried that local regulators will go too far and that this will deprive both financially stressed residents and visitors of a needed resource.

Anne-Sophie Rodet, who lives on a houseboat in North Vancouver, said she and others at the marina rent their places mainly when they are away on vacation.

"Financially, it helps. For sure, rent is a big part of the budget in Vancouver," she said. "And they offer places that are not like hotels. You can feel the city much better."

Ms. Kaisaris now has two Airbnb rooms, one of which is a bedroom only, the other of which is the size of a large hotel room with a kitchenette. She's rented them to grandparents visiting their condo-dwelling children and babies, to new immigrants who need a short-term place to stay while they're finding their feet, and to European visitors.

That brings in about $3,000 a month.

She's helped some new arrivals with their resumes and job searches. One set got married on her deck recently.

Ms. Kaisaris supports regulations for rentals, especially for investors who are buying condos just to rent them through Airbnb. But she is hoping cities will find a place in the regulatory system for places such as hers, which help introduce people to neighbourhoods and provide a financial relief valve for their hosts.

"It's a really nice community way to spread the money around."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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