Airbnb adds to housing crunch: officials

Mayor turns issue over to municipal staff for further investigation

With Whistler experiencing its worst labour shortage and housing crunch since before the 2010 Olympics, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is taking action to stem the tide of illegal nightly rentals in Whistler.

While there are no hard figures on the number of properties using sites like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway Canada to book nightly rentals without appropriate zoning, word is spreading of reduced availability in the rental market.

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“We’re hearing anecdotally about employees having difficulty finding rental accommodation outside of the (Whistler Housing Authority) properties,” said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. “We suspect that part of the problem is a number of property owners are making their properties that would otherwise be rented to employees available on things like Airbnb.”

Wilhelm-Morden has now turned over the issue to staff for another look. In 2014, bylaw services identified 66 properties in Whistler as illegal nightly rentals; 45 of those were made compliant by the end of the year. The remaining 21 open files will be part of this latest investigation.

Illegal nightly rentals have been on the radar of the RMOW since the late ‘90s when the possibility of nightly rental zoning permits was considered.

“We decided that no, the neighbourhoods should be left for full-time use for residents, employees or second homeowners,” said Wilhelm-Morden of council’s decision at the time. “But now with Airbnb, VRBO and Craigslist that whole business of nightly rentals has come up again. Most of the single-family homes are not zoned for nightly rentals and that raises issue with municipal taxation, with noise, with garbage and of course displacing employees. I’ve asked staff to look into how pervasive it is and then we can talk about educating homeowners.”

The Hotel Association of Whistler is also expressing concerns over the issue, not only due to the current lack of resident housing, but also the fact that illegal nightly rentals do not pay the two per cent hotel tax.

“There’s a lot of owners out there on our market that have bought a place knowing that it’s zoned for short-term accommodation. They pay the appropriate taxes, they’re doing everything legitimate,” said Ian Lowe, vice chair of the hotel association and general manager of the Crystal Lodge. “Their neighbour could just have their unit on Airbnb, not having the right zoning, not paying their property taxes accordingly. It’s just not fair at this point in time.”

Lowe has also seen the shortage of housing firsthand with his own employees having trouble finding long-term accommodation in Whistler.

“I have very mature managers that can not find accommodation in Whistler,” said Lowe. “One example is a gentleman who lived in the resort for 10 years who knows a lot of the landlords from living here. He left the resort and then came back. Now he’s reaching out to these former contacts and they’re all saying ‘no, my place is on Airbnb.’ With the limited inventory now, landlords that are renting long term have the ability to raise the rental rates.”

Once findings come in from RMOW staff they will be correlated with the annual Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) Annual Employees Housing Needs Assessment Survey in hopes of finding a solution to the ongoing housing problem. Whistler council members will also be looking at how other ski resort communities handle the issue with their upcoming fact-finding trip to Colorado.

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