Councillors ask if 3,500 Airbnb listings are eating into Vancouver, BC's supply of rental housing

So-called foreign buyers have become a bogeyman in Vancouver debates about affordable housing. But what about foreign renters? Do people who are in Vancouver for short stays contribute to the city’s housing crunch?

A master’s student at Simon Fraser University has published a data-driven snapshot of Airbnb offerings in Vancouver with a blog post that has caught the attention of city councillors.

Vision Vancouver’s Geoff Meggs described the numbers as “clear evidence” the city’s housing market is affected by Airbnb, an international digital service that connects travellers with people willing to share their homes.

“It is clear this could be having an impact on vacancy rates,” Meggs said in a telephone interview. “If there are several hundred units that are not in circulation because they are being held for outside tourist use, that could have an impact.”

There may be almost 2,500 such units, according to information pulled from Airbnb’s website by Karen Sawatzky as part of her research for a master’s thesis in urban studies.

In a telephone interview, Sawatzky was quick to note her data has limitations. But she said it has several aspects worthy of consideration in the context of the city’s debate about affordable housing.

Of 3,473 Airbnb listings in the City of Vancouver as of June 1, 71 percent, or 2,466, were for an “entire place” (versus private or shared room). For 4,628 Metro Vancouver listings, that number was 66 percent. Sawatzky noted that those portions are high compared to cities such as San Francisco and Portland, where 60 and 56 percent of listings are, respectively, for an entire house or apartment.

Next, Sawatzky said 318 Airbnb hosts in Vancouver (or 14 percent) have more than one property listed under their name.

She added these statistics are significant because they may reveal dwellings intentionally left vacant (and therefore taking from the city’s rental stock) so they can be leased via Airbnb full-time.

Sawatzky also called attention to neighbourhoods where Airbnb listings are clustered. On June 1, there were 648 (or 19 percent of the total) located in the downtown core, 474 in the West End, 380 in Kitsilano, 317 in Mount Pleasant, and 218 in Grandview-Woodland. She noted those are areas in high demand by Vancouver renters.

“It seems to me like Airbnb puts residents and tourists in competition for housing,” she said. “Are residents getting pushed out of those areas because people can get higher rents for short-term rentals? That’s an important question.”

According to Sawatzky, there has been a 20-percent increase in Vancouver listings on Airbnb since she began collecting data in November 2014. Some of that could be seasonal, she said. “But, obviously, Airbnb listings have grown dramatically.”

NPA councillor Melissa De Genova told the Straight she wants city staff looking into any effect Airbnb is having on the housing market as well as relevant legal and zoning issues. (Section 10 of the city’s zoning and development by-law makes the vast majority of Airbnb arrangements illegal, but those regulations have never been enforced.)

“One of the concerns is that there are a number of these short-term rentals that are possibly taking away from long-term rentals because it is more lucrative for people to rent their properties for the short term,” De Genova said.

She noted, however, that Airbnb is a service popular with travellers as well as hosts and one that can be used without having a negative impact on rental stock.

“A lot of people want to come here, and as we see our economy grow, we are going to see Airbnb grow,” De Genova continued. “So we have two options: we can either sit and wait for it to become an issue, or we can deal with it head-on before it becomes a larger issue.”

Meggs said staff are monitoring the development of services like Airbnb, collectively known as the “sharing economy”. He noted there exists a city working group that’s looking at the ride-hailing service Uber. But Meggs said he’s not aware of any plan to convene something similar specifically for Airbnb.

“At some point, the city will have to figure out how to manage these new technologies,” he said.