Pemberton grapples with short-term rentals 

Airbnb polarizes mountain town

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEL BARDE - What to do? Pemberton residents learned about Airbnb regulatory options at a community meeting on July 18.
  • Photo by Joel Barde
  • What to do? Pemberton residents learned about Airbnb regulatory options at a community meeting on July 18.

Search "Pemberton" on Airbnb's website, and you get a sense of just how popular the rental platform has become. Depending on the time of year, you will find between 75 and 150 options — from rooms in apartments, to entire homes.

Not bad for a community and surrounding area with fewer than 10,000 residents.

Yet despite its popularity, a growing number of community members feel Airbnb is robbing the mountain town of long-term housing and turning residential neighbourhoods into hotel districts.

The Village of Pemberton (VOP) has taken note, and is in the process of developing a new set of bylaws that would regulate Airbnb and other short-term rentals. As part of its efforts, on Tuesday, July 18, the VOP hosted a get-together at the Pemberton Community Centre that aimed to inform the community of some of the regulatory options available.

The event was led by Dan Wilson, a specialist in community planning with the Whistler Centre for Sustainability, and town planner Lisa Pedrini.

Wilson and Pedrini are charged with the difficult task of drawing up legislation that is both tenable and reflective of Pemberton's vision for its future.

As Wilson underlined during his presentation, communities around the world are grappling with how to regulate Airbnb, an eight-year-old internet platform that as of March 2017 was valued at an astonishing US$30 billion.

Recently, the Quebec government changed its tourist accommodation law to require short-term renters to obtain a $250 permit, obtain $2 million in insurance coverage, and collect a nightly lodging tax. After a protracted legal battle, Airbnb is now required to provide San Francisco with names and addresses of anyone renting on the platform, information the city uses to enforce regulation through expensive fines. New York has banned the rental of entire apartments, and Berlin has banned it altogether.

Closer to home, Tofino (which is gripped with a housing crisis that is arguably even worse than Whistler's) is taking a more punitive approach after years of not enforcing bylaws, and Nelson developed a set of rules that cap the number of short-term rentals in the community and restricts people from renting out secondary homes.

Richmond and Harrison Hot Springs have taken a more strident approach, outright banning short-term rentals altogether.

Standing in front of a wall of windows — that look out on the towering mountains that surround the community and act as a magnet for tourists — Wilson said that every community needs to develop solutions that works for it.

Pemberton, he explained, has three choices: be permissive, allowing it to continue to go on without regulation; try to ban it; or develop bylaws to regulate it.

Pemberton does, in fact, already have rules on the book. Short-term renters are required to obtain a business licence, live in the home they are renting, and are limited to renting out one or two rooms. They must also provide breakfast to their guests.

If the rules sound quaint, it is because they were developed in the pre-Airbnb era, when bed and breakfasts were marginal and largely mom-and pop-operations.

The problem is that not a lot of people seem to know — or perhaps care ­— about the rules

Of all Pemberton's short-term rentals, only seven are above board.

The community, explained Pedrini, has taken steps to "educate" renters of the bylaw, but it has no means of easily fining anyone who does not abide by them.

Following the presentation, David MacKenzie, owner of the Pemberton Valley Lodge and president of the BC Hotel Association, voiced his frustration.

During the presentation, Wilson had shown a slide comparing Airbnb to Hilton Hotels, which showed that while it took Hilton 92 years to reach 610,000 rooms in 88 countries, Airbnb has already surpassed the hotelier in terms of both rooms and countries.

"It's very important to understand that over those 93 years, Hilton invested millions and millions of dollars into those 88 countries, and while Airbnb built that empire, they haven't invested one dime in any of those communities," said MacKenzie, shaking his head.

He sees Airbnb as riding on the coattails of the hotel industry, which has built B.C. into an international destination through promotional campaigns paid for by hotel taxes, which Airbnbs don't pay.

In an interview with Pique, MacKenzie said he wants to see provincial legislation regulating Airbnbs to help make an "even playing field."

For MacKenzie, the effects of Airbnb are clear: It is taking away long-term housing, making it near impossible for employers like him to retain staff.

He's understaffed and feels "exhausted," he explained. He's been trying to move a couple to Pemberton to work in his hotel. But the prices are out of control.

"Who's going to pay $3,600 a month for a three-bedroom apartment?" he asked, adding that he had another staff member that was forced to pay $1,200 a month for a room in a home.

For MacKenzie and others, the short-term rental issue is also wrapped up in larger notions of what Pemberton should look and feel like.

Four houses in his cul-de-sac operate Airbnbs, he said, causing issues with parking and a steady stream of interlopers. The community vibe, what he moved to Pemberton in the first place, is gone, MacKenzie said. Pemberton used to be the bedroom community of Whistler, but long-term accommodation has dried up, and it's tearing at the "fabric of our community," he said.

Some, however, don't agree —or perhaps they view seeing the odd unfamiliar face as a worthwhile trade-off.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity (because she feels she will be "vilified" for her views), one Airbnb operator told Pique she feels she is offering something unique and cool.

She rents out her home for between $300 and $400 a night, for around eight weeks a year, she said, and she sees a distinction between what she does and other people who use Airbnb as a business.

"This type of accommodation does not exist in Pemberton, and it is what people are looking for," she said, adding that the money is used "strictly" to pay for family vacations. It's not as though she's taking away long-term housing, she explained.

But with next to nothing available on the rental markets, Airbnb detractors say many operators are renting out secondary homes, which should be used to house locals.

The community does not keep track of vacancy rates, but according to Pedrini it is "very low," and many say there is next to nothing on the market.

Knowing just how many Airbnb operators are renting out secondary homes, as opposed to primary ones, is difficult. And the only ones with the information aren't inclined to share it.

When asked how many days a year on average Sea to Sky Airbnbers rent their places (which could provide an indication), Alex Dagg, an Airbnb public policy expert, said that while the organization would "potentially" be willing to share that information with Pemberton, it is not willing to share it with Pique.

"That's the kind of statistic we share with local governments, not reporters," she said.

In Dagg's estimation, Airbnb is "an internet platform" that has allowed house sharing — which has gone on forever — to occur on a "much more global scale."

She also said the organization is being scapegoated for larger societal issues that undergird the unaffordability crisis that has come to define city life.

"British Columbia has a very low minimum wage," she said. "One of the issues is how much people are paid."

For MacKenzie and others, however, Pemberton needs to bring in regulations, and it needs to do it fast. "I'm not saying Airbnb go away," said MacKenzie. "I'm saying we need a level playing field."

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