Wednesday, March 22, 2023
March 22, 2023

STVR enforcement: Fixing the wrong problem


I would like to comment on the approach that the Islands Trust is taking against short term vacatation rentals on Salt Spring Island, with the stated goal of protecting the island’s rental stock.

I could hear a collective sigh of relief from islanders who think this is a good thing. But it isn’t a good thing, and I will tell you why.

To begin with, let’s look at what accommodation is listed on Airbnb for Salt Spring Island. I selected two midweek days two weeks out, which resulted in 258 listings — wow! Only 135 of them turned out to be on Salt Spring, however.

The breakdown was as follows: under “Entire Space” there were 10 sub-listings: Cabin (29), Apartment (16), Guest Suite (15), Guest House (9), B&Bs (8), Boat/Bus/Yurt (8), House (7), Tiny Homes (2), Loft (2), Cottage (2). Then, under Private Room (37) and Shared Room (3).

If you eliminate the shared rooms, private rooms, boat/bus/yurt, B&Bs and guest suites, none of which would be considered as rental stock, we are left with 67 listings that might be suitable for rentals. Not 140.

Now let’s look at the rental market on Salt Spring. According to the Affordable Housing Needs Assessment report (December 2015) sponsored by Island Women Against Violence/Salt Spring Foundation/Salt Spring Housing Council Society, roughly 850 people rent at any point in time. This equates to roughly 425 full-time rental units, which is only half the number of rental units per capita compared to the rest of the province — definitely a major shortfall! Furthermore, Salt Spring renters earn much less than the annual salary of other renters in the rest of B.C. — a double whammy here!

Renting out accommodation, though, is not an attractive option for owners these days. In B.C., it has become particularly risky. There are lots of legal protections for the renter and not many for the owners.

For example, owners can only collect a half-month’s rent as a damage deposit. Evicting tenants (for non-payment, or damage, or whatever) can be a long and expensive process, and if your place does get trashed — you pay! And full-year/fixed-term leases are no longer allowed. It’s all month to month now.

Airbnb, on the other hand, collects the money up front, and pays you directly at the end of your guest’s visit. They pay for any damage that is done to your unit, so there is zero financial risk rather than significant financial risk. Perhaps this is why people are choosing Airbnb over the rental option?

This would be an easy idea to test. Share the financial risk on rentals. Get 10 people to put in $5,000 each. Structure it as an impact investment to set up a fund of $50,000. Then, if tenants don’t pay, or there are legal issues, or if the unit gets trashed, cover these costs out of the fund. Top up the fund when required. This would probably be the least expensive way to add rental units quickly because it addresses the financial risk. And, after all, if the rental stock is considered to be Salt Spring Island’s rental stock, then it follows that we self-insure it.

A much bigger problem, however, is the uncertain water supply on Salt Spring. The North Salt Spring Waterworks District moratorium in place continues to prevent moving forward with viable solutions for rental housing and affordable housing too.

For instance, If the moratorium were to be lifted, an interesting solution would be to set up a community for tiny homes, which have the smallest footprint of all. I envision maybe 15 tiny home-sites joined by a boardwalk in the woods, a modern shared bath-house, garden space and extra storage space. Grey water from the taps in their homes and from showers and baths in the bathhouse could go directly to their gardens.

It would probably cost about $750,000 all in (just a guess), so five individuals contributing $150,000 each (which many people could do) again, structured as an impact investment, could make this a reality. But even if we wanted to, we couldn’t do it right now because of the water, or lack thereof.

Is the water issue solvable? You bet. This is 2018, after all, and we’re well on our way to Mars. Water on Salt Spring is easy in comparison.

But we need to focus on solutions: solutions on water, solutions on rental housing, solutions on affordable housing, and more. The funny thing about solutions is that if you look for them you’re also more likely to find them. And a solution that creates a new problem does not count as a solution.

One last note: Other jurisdictions that are facing similar rental problems have limited Airbnbs to local resident operators only. That keeps the money in the community and generates money for residents and businesses alike (on an island where it’s not that easy to make money). Out-of-towners need not apply! Perhaps this would be a more practical starting point in moving forward?

So are we trying to fix the wrong problem? It sure looks like it to me.

The writer is an independent scientist living on Salt Spring.


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