The City of Nelson may introduce new rules for short-term rentals in the city. They have hired Alex Thumm, a masters student in urban studies at Simon Fraser University, to look into this over the summer.
Thumm has put up a website at str.nelson.ca that includes a public survey that can be filled out anonymously, and he is planning three public events:
• A stakeholder meeting on June 9, by invitation only. This will be attended by owners of hotels and bed and breakfasts, tourism operators, and several Airbnb hosts.
• Informal consultations at the Cottonwood Market on June 11 and at the downtown market on June 15, at which the public can discuss the issue and fill out the survey.
• A town hall meeting on June 21 at the Chamber of Commerce, 91 Baker St., from 6 to 9 p.m.
A level playing field
Thumm says the initiative will explore how to ensure a level playing field for accommodators in terms of taxes, licensing, zoning and safety standards, as well as how to ensure the housing needs of local long-term renters are met.
“The informal discussions [at the markets] are to test the waters in an informal environment,” says Thumm. “We also want to start educating people on what the rules are right now.”
One of the current rules is zoning. According to Thumm, “If you live in a low-density residential area in the City of Nelson (zones R-1, R-3, or CD-6) you may rent up to two guest rooms on a short-term basis (less than 30 days). R-6, MU-1, C-1, C-2, and CD-5 allow for more. But you do require a business licence.”
The city’s short term rental website includes a zoning map.
Thumm says it seems to be accepted that if you run a traditional bed and breakfast (in which the property owner is always onsite) you need a business licence and must comply with zoning, but this doesn’t appear to be accepted practice for Airbnbs. Thumm says non-compliance with zoning law can lead to a fine of $500 per day under current city rules.
Thumm’s short term rental website sets out the current rules in considerable detail. He says current Airbnb operators who wish to come forward now and apply for a business licence may do so without penalty, provided they’re in a zone that allows Airbnb accommodation.
Home-sharing or under-the-table hotel?
Thumm says one issue is the line between home-sharing and commercial activity.
“The myth is that it is just regular people who have an extra room, but it is increasingly being taken advantage of so they become an under-the-table hotel. There are people in Vancouver and Portland who have dozens of listings available full time. Some listings in Nelson have over 100 reviews and are seemingly available all the time and they are an entire home. I would not use the term home-sharing for that.
“A bed and breakfast operator is required to live in that home. They are sharing their home, and if it’s a smaller home they are just charged residential property tax as well. If it is a bed and breakfast, no one questions the need for them to have a business licence and safety standards and insurance.”
Thumm thinks most Airbnb operators haven’t thought about insurance.
“If there is accidental damage, such as a fire caused by deep-frying in kitchen, that is not covered, and if your home insurance provider discovers you were renting this out and you didn’t disclose that, then your insurance isn’t valid.”
And parking is also an issue. He says some municipalities require short term rentals to provide off-street parking.
Thumm says there is a myth in Nelson and across the province that it is legal for a landlord to evict tenants so they can “Airbnb the place.” That’s not true, although there is at least one documented case, in Burnaby, of a tenant being evicted on those grounds.
And short term rentals are encroaching into home sales in unpredicted ways as well. Thumm cites a case in Victoria of a house being sold as a business with the added value of a successful cash flow from short term rentals.
What other communities are doing
Thumm’s website surveys how other communities are approaching the regulation of Airbnbs.
For example, Sechelt requires a short term residential licence. Conditions for approval include a written record of all guests, notification of all neighbours within 100 meters, and a $1,000 deposit.
Tofino has modified its zoning, requires business licences, limits the number of licences provided, limits the number of suites and guests per property, and requires one off-street parking spot per unit.
The site also lists the efforts of Gabriola Island, Pemberton, Kaslo, Vancouver, Victoria, Penticton, Revelstoke, Saturna Island, Squamish, Sun Peaks and Whistler as well as national and international examples. For example, New York state prohibits rental of a whole house for less than 30 days. Portland, Oregon, requires the owner to live in the house at least 75 per cent of the year. In San Francisco and Santa Monica they must reside in the house full time. Berlin has all but banned short term rentals.
Thumm’s online survey is actually two surveys. The first is for members of the general public, and asks for their advice and opinions on issues of regulations, insurance, licensing, parking, and other issues. The second is aimed at people now renting their properties short term and asks a comprehensive set of questions about the number and frequency of guests, whether they live on the property and have parking, whether they are licensed and insured, their awareness of zoning bylaws, and their advice to the city regarding a short term rental policy.