Has Nelson’s downtown area lost many long-term rental units to short-term rentals (Airbnb and other similar platforms) in the past few years?
This is not an easy question to answer.
You can’t get a licence to run a short-term rental in the downtown area, and the city does not accept applications for them, according to city planner Alex Thumm. But you can get a tourist accommodation licence, which is the same as those held by hotels. This applies to Vernon, Baker and Victoria Streets as well as downtown cross-streets.
There is a crucial difference between short-term rentals including Airbnb, and tourist accommodation.
The city has regulations about short-term rentals including number of units per block, maximum guest occupancy, parking, and a requirement that the renter be a resident of the building. But they only apply in residential areas.
Thumm says there are currently 15 tourist accommodation licenses in the downtown (not including hotels, hostels and bed-and-breakfasts) amounting to about 20 dwelling units in total.
A tourist accommodation licence for one-to-six guest rooms of downtown tourist accommodation costs $160.
Thumm said the number of these licences has gone up by several per year for the past few years but “that wouldn’t give you a good indication anyway of the number of dwelling units used for tourist accommodation. It’s the same licence we issue whether it is for a hotel room-like space … or one apartment, two apartments, three apartments … up to six apartments.”
It’s hard to say if any of those units were long-term rentals before because no one tracks that. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, from which governments get their rental vacancy rate numbers, does not actually count the number of suites but bases its rates on sample interviews with building owners.
A visit to Airbnb’s website does show a few Airbnb rentals in the downtown area. That’s because owners of downtown tourist accommodation licences can still advertise their accommodation on Airbnb’s website if they wish, getting some of the marketing advantages of Airbnb without having to comply with the city’s short-term rental rules.
When presented with the theory that short-term rentals are taking over from long-term units downtown, Trevor Jenkinson, president of the West Kootenay Landlord Society, says, “That’s not a fair statement.”
He said he doesn’t know if there are fewer long-term rentals downtown than in past years, and agrees with Thumm that it would be difficult to find out. He said if there were in fact fewer long-term rental spaces, it would be hard to pin the blame on short-term rentals or tourist accommodation with any certainty because many other housing market factors also come into play.
A spokesperson for Nelson CARES, which publishes the annual Report Card on Homelessness, and which is involved in many housing issues in Nelson, told the Star that the organization does not know whether long-term rentals downtown have decreased and is not sure how to find out.
Thumm says the city enforces its rules about short-term rentals using Host Compliance, an American company that, according to its website “uses a variety of data sources and web tools to search out which listings are active, how active they are, and where they are located.”
The city’s website has a complaints page for members of the public to report short-term rental issues.
Thumm reminds us that the downtown area is commercially zoned.
“From a housing supply perspective, any residential units [downtown] are a bonus,” he said. “Even if we had stricter rules on downtown short-term rentals, any apartment-like space could just as easily be converted into an office, retail space, studio, etc., as-of-right.”