Opinion: Yes, offsite operators should remain offside

It’s been an eight-year saga but Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) directors are now, finally, a few votes away from changing bylaws regulating short-term rentals.

The bylaws would ban offsite operators, as has always been the case, but which remains a divisive issue.

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Directors had originally planned on allowing them by issuing temporary use permits but changed their minds, triggering a second public hearing, held June 30.

It’s a good thing they did. Banning offsite operators is a step in the right direction.

A study by McGill University researchers last year – the first to analyze Airbnb listings across Canada – found that “while current Airbnb activity is concentrated in major cities, active listings, total revenue, hosts with multiple listings, and frequently rented entire-home listings are all growing at substantially higher rates in small towns and rural areas.”

It also found that nearly 50 per cent of revenue from Airbnbs in 2018 went to people managing multiple listings. The study suggests the commercialization of short-term rentals reduces housing stock and concentrates earnings into fewer hands, all the while robbing residential neighbourhoods of their residential nature.

As one speaker put it at the hearing, “You can’t run a hotel beside somebody’s house in a residential area.”

But as the trends show from Barcelona to Tofino, it doesn’t really matter what kind of regulation is in place – Airbnb isn’t going away, because it earns people money and it’s a great way to travel.

So the question is, as another speaker put it to directors: “How do you ethically ensure the people who are doing this have everyone’s interest at heart rather than economic interests?”

There’s no way directors can ensure that. But they can get a little closer by stemming the commodification of the short-term rental market on the Sunshine Coast.

Banning offsite operators was a good move, even if it alone won’t stop neighbourhoods from evolving into unregulated tourist resorts.

To prevent that, assuming that’s what they want, local governments should also be passionately lobbying for more direct accountability from these platforms so that it doesn’t come down to local communities to foot the enforcement bill while spending eight years agonizing over the best way to regulate a grey market economy using substantially toothless bylaws to do it.

As for the well-intentioned operators with skin in the game, I hope they move ahead with a constructive idea that bubbled up at last week’s meeting: organize through a working group or launch an association and work with directors to keep everyone’s interests at heart.

Read more on the public hearing here.

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