The Hotel Association of Whistler claims that homeowners looking to turn a quick profit by illegally renting out their property on a nightly basis are exacerbating the resort's housing crunch.
"What we've found over the last two or three months, and possibly even going back to pre-summer, is that a lot of (homeowners) are now putting their units on particular channels for short-term rentals and taking away staff housing for long-term rentals," said Ian Lowe, vice chair of the hotel association and GM of the Crystal Lodge.
The issue of illegal nightly rentals has been on the municipality's radar since at least the late '90s, when council turned down a proposal to zone for tourism accommodation in certain neighbourhoods, such as currently exists near Nicklaus North. The problem has grown in recent years with the proliferation of global accommodation listing services like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway Canada, which merely request that users follow all applicable local bylaws.
Last year, local accommodation property owner Madeleine Hamilton provided the RMOW with a list of dozens of units she believed were in contravention of zoning, and said she's found another 15 pop up on rental sites in recent months. She estimated that the pre-bookings to date of these allegedly illegal rental homes amounts to around $500,000 in lost income for sanctioned accommodations. Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden confirmed that so far in 2014 there have been 66 illegal rental properties identified by Bylaw Services, 45 of which are now in compliance, with the remaining 21 files still open.
The municipality deals with this issue on a complaint-by-complaint basis, and will issue a letter to homeowners believed to be in contravention requesting a 30-day window for compliance, after which a second letter is issued. If compliance is still not achieved, the RMOW can issue a $1,000 fine, or in rare cases, council can consider seeking a Supreme Court injunction against the owner.
It's a problem that is difficult to tackle, Wilhelm-Morden said, and one that the municipality does not take lightly.
"It does seem like whack-a-mole, doesn't it?" she said. "We take these issues very seriously. It's contrary to zoning in most cases. There can be life safety issues and there's disruptions of the neighbourhood from traffic flows, so we take these (complaints) very seriously."
To effectively root out illegal rental units, Sue Chappel, CEO of resort vacation rental site alluraDirect, said the community has to consider what makes these global rental sites so enticing to visitors.
"One of the most obvious reasons is they have the most complete inventory of all of Whistler's accommodations," she said, adding that the typical Whistler guest visits at least five rental sites before booking a property.
As a Tourism Whistler board member, Chappel has advocated strongly for the development of a centralized database that would vet and list all legitimate rental properties available in the resort, something Wilhelm-Morden said she'd be in favour of.
Another major concern for Lowe and the hotel association is that the dozens of rental units flying under the radar aren't being taxed like other legitimate accommodations, which negatively impacts the community in the long run.
"What happens with that hotel tax of course is that it's self-fulfilling, so we charge our guests the two per cent, which goes to the provincial government, the provincial government fires it back through the RMOW, which is then used to improve the community," he said. We're not hoping to abolish the world of Airbnbs and FlipKeys, we're just hoping to make it a level playing field."
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