The City of Nelson’s investigation of whether, and how, to regulate Airbnb and other short-term rentals has prompted the formation of the Nelson Short-Term Rental Owners’ Association.
Spearheaded by Nelson resident Stephen Harris, the group is responding to an unexpected consensus among about 50 short-term rental owners who attended a town hall meeting held by the city on June 21.
“Our core message is rather than fighting against the future,” Harris told the Star, “the city should embrace that there is a new type of traveller. So legalize and regulate it to some extent, and allow us to pay a business licence fee and the hotel room tax.”
Harris said when he started renting out a floor of his house short-term, he applied for a business licence and was refused because his home is in a zone where such rentals are not allowed.
“If the complaint is that these guys operate without paying their fair share,” Harris said, “I will happily pay my fair share. Our suggestion is that business licences in Nelson are pretty inexpensive. They probably cost more to administer than to collect.”
He suggested that the city increase business licence fees to a range between $100 to $1000, depending on the type of accommodation. This could raise $50,000 a year that the city could use to subsidize low-cost long-term rental housing.
The city’s focus this summer on Airbnb and similar short-term rentals stems from concerns that operators are competing unfairly with hotels by operating without buying business licences, paying taxes, or complying with zoning. There are also concerns about safety standards and parking.
Town hall meeting draws a crowd
Alex Thumm, the graduate student hired by the city to spend the summer looking into options for regulating short-term rentals, agreed with Harris that among the several dozen short-term rental operators who attended the June 21 town hall meeting there was a surprising consensus in favour of licensing and regulation.
He said there was less agreement on whether short-term rentals threaten long-term rentals and whether off-street parking should be required.
At the June 21 meeting, Thumm reported on the results of two online surveys he created, one for short-term rental operators that got 50 responses, and another for the general public that got 297 responses, for a total of 347.
Thumm has created a website at str.nelson.ca, on which he has posted the surveys, detailed survey results, summaries of meeting discussions, and next steps.
Short-term rental operator survey highlights
Thumm said he got more responses than he expected from short-term rental operators.
“I was told that there is no way people are going to respond to this, but there were 50, and that is almost half of the sort term operators in Nelson. I was surprised.”
Highlights of their responses include:
• 46.8 per cent said they were not familiar with the zoning requirements for their property.
• 72.9 per cent said they were not familiar with the legal requirements governing the short-term rentals before the visited the city’s website.
• 39 per cent said that now that they have read the website they believe their operation is illegal, while 41.7 per cent previously were either unsure or had not thought about the legality of their short-term rental.
Thumm said that since the survey went out, many short-term rental operators have called city hall inquiring about zoning and licensing requirements.
General public survey highlights
Responses from the survey aimed at the general public included these highlights:
• 50.8 per cent think short-term rentals are an overall benefit for Nelson, 26.6 per cent said they are not, and 22.6 said they are unsure.
• 73.4 per cent of respondents thought there should be one off street parking space per room rented.
• 70.3 per cent thought short-term rentals should be inspected by the city for fire safety.
• 53.9 per cent think short-term rentals are bad for long-term rental availability.
• 70.6 per cent think that the short-term rental should be the primary residence of the operator, whether or not they are there when the rental is taking place.
Thumm said that in the extensive written comments on the survey, many people wrote about the value of short- term rentals for tourism.
“Hotels are saying that too, that there is a need for this,” he said. “Short-term rental hosts say most of the people who stay with them are not tourists. They are coming to visit friends or family, so want to be near the people they are visiting. If they had to stay in a hotel they might not come.”
A threat to long-term rental availability?
To the survey question, “Why did you become a short-term rental operator?” Thumm’s survey for operators got many responses about the economy and the difficulty of making ends meet in Nelson. There were several comments expressing frustration with long-term renters, such as: “Not all of my long-term renters have been negligent, irresponsible or abusive. But enough have been for me to seriously question whether I want to rent long-term, even if Airbnb becomes impossible.”
This was the area of least consensus, in the surveys and in the June 21 meeting: whether short-term rentals cut into the availability of long-term rentals in Nelson. Local hotel owner Ryan Martin says he thinks they do.
“It is a sad state of affairs when families are getting evicted so owners can make way for short-term rentals. The vacancy rate in Nelson is zero per cent now.”
He said he regularly interviews prospective employees who can’t find accommodation. But Martin says he is not anti-Airbnb.
“In fact I stayed at my first Airbnb in Sechelt two weeks ago. It was fantastic. The guy had beers in the fridge for us, he had a guitar to play, we sat on the deck, it was wonderful.
“They have their place in our new sharing economy. Having said that, operators need to pay their fair share to level the playing field.”
Harris says that at the June 21 meeting the short-term rental operators were polled on whether they would rent out their space long-term if the city outlawed short-term rentals. He says not one of them said they would.
“I guarantee you, I would not do long-term rental,” Harris told the Star. “I have been down that road before and I can’t risk my mortgage on a tenant who decides that they don’t want to pay and it is months before someone is evicted.”
Martin said he is glad to see the city looking into regulating short-term rentals and he thinks that requiring business licences is a good place to start.
Thumm’s next step will to write a draft proposal to city council and post it on the website by July 11, with a new survey for public comment. He is aiming to have the proposal to council for discussion at its August 8 meeting.