Trust Candidates Q&A: short-term vacation rentals and staff housing

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Wednesday, October 3 2018

The four candidates running for Islands Trust were once again asked questions by the Sounder this week. Scott Colbourne, Erik Johnson, Kees Langereis and David Neads are the four people running to be the two Trustees for Gabriola, Mudge and DeCourcy Islands in the Islands Trust.

They were asked questions about short-term vacation rentals, and seasonal multi-family dwellings.

This past week, the Local Trust Committee (LTC) had two Temporary Use Permit (TUP) applications before it with applicants wanting to operate short-term vacation rentals (STVRs) in their homes.

Coverage of the current Trustees’ decision is included in this edition of the Sounder.

Trustees approved one, but requested more information on the other, saying that there was not enough information to demonstrate what the applicants had done to satisfy neighbours’ concerns.

Part of the Trustees’ discussion revolved around the public feedback which had stated the operation of STVRs remove potential long-term rentals from the existing housing stock. But they also noted there are still other STVRs operating on the island without the proper permit - and there are plenty of homes left vacant by those who are able to own more than one home.

Candidates were asked what their take on this situation was.

Colbourne: Our Trust Council is to be congratulated for trying to balance demand from property owners for short-term rental income with the needs of neighbours (for respectful co-existence) and the broader community (homes for people who live here year-round). But there are 42 listings on Airbnb for Gabriola, a tiny percentage of those property owners have applied for permits, and the bylaws restricting operation without permits are not being enforced, which ultimately punishes people who do try to abide by the law.

There are other models in play: Tofino, for example, is using HostCompliance.com, a site that allows local governments to enforce short-term rental rules and reduce their impact on neighbours without eating up staff time.

That could help, but as long as we don’t have a healthy supply of secure, truly affordable long-term rentals, the summer surge is going to increase the pressure on all of these intersecting needs.

Johnson: In regards to the TUP applications, I am concerned that they could be very detrimental to our stock of available long-term rental stock. I am also very concerned that off-island real estate investors and non-resident Airbnb operators can use this loophole to make it even harder for our fellow island resident renters to acquire suitable housing and maintain their lives within our community. In many places, particularly summer holiday destinations like Gabriola, Airbnbs have taken over the housing stock. Obviously, there are already short-term rentals flying under the Trust and RDN radar right now without permits. I don’t want to change our present level of enforcement, nor do I want to codify any process that endangers those who have not chosen (or have been able) to be landowners as yet. The Trust needs to examine thoroughly how many, if any, of these Temporary Use Permits are a good fit for the island and particularly the neighbourhoods that they are issued within. Neighbours and neighbourhoods shouldn’t have to constantly be on guard against encroachment by commercial interests. They should be able to know that the Trust has their back, and that TUPs will not be considered unless there is a provable need that it would benefit the community at large and the neighbours in particular.

Langereis: Decisions on short-term vacation rentals (STVR) create a conundrum for Trustees. STVRs provide an economic benefit to the local economy but they don’t address the current rental housing shortfall. Denying these applications won’t guarantee availability of that residence for long-term rental. Residences may or may not remain vacant, something the Trust has no control over. And numbers and locations of them may have a cumulative impact on the neighbourhood for the duration of the permit.

The concerns about the potential loss of rental housing through STVRs, continued non-compliance with bylaws and existence of vacant homes are valid. Therefore, Trustees need consider whether the economic benefits outweigh potential impacts on rental housing stock, neighbourhoods and the island’s character overall. There is no easy solution, and finding the balance between our community’s needs is key to solving this question.

Neads: By definition, STVRs don’t impact long-term rentals. The fact that there are STVRs, long-term rentals and Airbnb on the island operating below the radar demonstrates the need for more flexibility in the bylaw. Whenever I encounter very difficult problems, I resort first to principles to solve them. Strip the rhetoric away, confront the basics. Yes, legitimizing secondary suites may increase population, may cause more ferry problems, yet that same population provides services, family and stability to a community that is slowly ossifying. The decreasing capacity of the existing population to sustain a vibrant multi-generational community on social, service and emotional levels creates a need that has to be filled in a recognized way. If not, the underground will continue to fill some of the need, but it will be inadequate and unregulated. So I advocate the return of secondary suites, but with vigorous application of conservation, and impact mitigation measures guided by the Trust mandate to preserve and protect communities and ecosystems.

Follow-up: should the Islands Trust be exploring ways to allow short-term, multi-family housing in the Village Core, with the requirement that said housing be used to house employees of businesses and organizations which need more staff in the “busy” months, and then as cold-weather shelter during the off-season for islanders?

Colbourne: Employers benefit when employees have secure housing. Humans benefit when they don’t have to sleep rough in winters turned weird by climate change. But two rights don’t make a solution: if our shared goal is increasing housing security, why institutionalize seasonal turnover?

If elected Trustee, I will prioritize clearing the path for not-for-profit housing solutions for the islanders who need them most: people with low incomes and insecure housing, seniors who want to age in place, and people with special needs (and exceptional abilities). That means housing agreements that make rentals affordable in perpetuity, not just until the next solstice.

Johnson: I would rather see full employment for residents of Gabriola well in advance of subsidizing seasonal housing for the benefit of commercial interests. It is unfair for housing to be provided for off-islanders when much of our island workforce is not given the same. Too many staff are serving our food, washing our dishes, living paycheque to paycheque. Some will never be able to buy a house or maintain a family until wages are at a living wage on an island where the median income is four times what many in the service industry earn. 

Some businesses hold their current employees to less than 30 hours a week to avoid paying “benefits” and I and many of my neighbours find it difficult to underwrite this wrong. 

Businesses who have real problems staffing up either need to change their attitude towards the Gabriola resident workforce, or get out a much bigger carrot to keep quality off-island staff. I am a tremendous supporter of Gabriola businesses and services, but this is a bridge too far.

Langeries: I believe Gabriola needs an emergency shelter with proper support services on site. The idea of establishing mixed-use housing would require employer (and/or housing agency) commitment to take on responsibility for management of the shelter and employee housing. Providing housing for vulnerable residents during the winter months and then displacing them in favour of summer employees seems disruptive and unfair. 

Owners of commercial properties do have the option of building one residence on the property which could accommodate employees, and, if one isn’t enough, it could be increased.  

The feasibility of mixed-use housing needs a full discussion with all stakeholders.

Neads: The idea of busy season rental and cold season shelter, seems, on the face of it, to be a good idea. When I look at it more closely I am not so sure. 

Not just the nightmare of administering such a system, but also the basic decision-making process. Who has to leave when, why, and where do they go? I think this type of housing is best done in the boarding house situation, which is already allowed, not in housing developments, no matter how well intentioned.