Development Matters: The vacation rental story

Vacation rentals remain an issue in Revelstoke, despite a bylaw that permits them. In this series we look at all the issues around them.

There’s an estimated 60 vacation rentals in Revelstoke

When Scott Duke decided to build a second home on his CPR Hill property, the only way he could see it as feasible was to run it as a vacation rental.

“The only way we could do it is rent it long-term in the summer and then rent it short-term to skiers in the winter,” he told the Review. “That way we could get some money to build a house.”

Duke, a city councillor, just legalized one of his homes as a vacation rental and an application to zone his other home for the purpose is set for a public hearing and vote on Tuesday.

For him, it’s the way to recoup the investment he made building the one home and renovating the other. Vacation rentals are an economic contributor to the community, he says, both in terms of the rental income from tourists, as well as the money spent on construction, renovations, and household products. They also increase the number of beds available in a town who’s hotels are fully booked at peak season.

“It brings investment dollars in,” he said. “People are doing renovations and building houses. It’s a positive thing for the community.”

On the other side of the argument are those who express concern about unfair competition, the impact vacation rentals have on neighbourhoods, and the availability of long-term rental housing. Every vacation rental on the market means one less house available to renters, which drives up the cost of rent in town, the argument goes.

The Revelstoke Accommodation Association has twice argued in front of council that vacation rentals operate on an uneven playing field because they don’t have to pay the same taxes that hotels do.

The City of Revelstoke passed a bylaw in 2014 governing vacation rentals, but Mayor Mark McKee has said several times that it’s an issue council will have to re-visit. The issues raised, like taxation, enforcement, and the impact on housing and neighbourhoods have come up repeatedly, and will surely continue to be raised.

In this multi-part series, the Review looks at all the issues surrounding vacation rentals, including the tourism impacts, housing issues, regulation, enforcement, and taxation. This feature is part of an in-depth series of articles by the Review, Current and Mountaineer on housing and development in Revelstoke. Look for more stories under the banner Development Matters over the coming weeks.

***

Vacation rentals have existed for ages in tourism destinations, whether they were slopeside, lakeside or beachside. They’ve taken off with the advent of sites like VRBO, HomeAway and, most significantly, AirBnB. Depending on how you count the numbers, the latter is considered the largest hotelier in the world, even though it doesn’t own a single property. It lists more than a million rooms for rent and has a market valuation of about $25 billion — more than Marriott International, the world’s biggest hotel chain.

In Revelstoke, there’s about 60 vacation rentals in city limits and another 40 or so in the rural area. The numbers have more than doubled in recent years. A staff report by Dean Strachan, the city’s manager of development services, says they represent about two per cent of all accommodation beds in the city.

“From a tourism perspective, there’s definitely a need for this style of accommodation for some travellers,” said Meghan Tabor, the marketing coordinator for Revelstoke Tourism. “Some prefer home-based type of traveling, having access to the full kitchen and different types of rooms.

“It just needs to be regulated,” she added.

Duke, on top of owning two vacation rentals, manages another 15 through his company Revelstoke Property Services. The average price to rent out a four-bedroom house for a night in peak season is $500, he said. Most renters are men in their 40s, here to ski for a few days. “We’re the budget option for heli-skiing,” he said.

Another vacation rental owner I spoke to, who asked not to be named because her property isn’t legal, said they get lots of families who want more space and a place to cook. “Not everybody is into doing hotels,” she said. “Some of them want to have a little more ease for cooking… Maybe they have their kids, but not everybody wants to be in the same room.

“With vacation rentals throughout the community, it gives the vacationer a variety of different places to stay,” she said.

***

Under the City of Revelstoke’s vacation rental bylaw, short-term rentals are allowed in all single-family residential zones. Home owners apply to the city and the neighbours are notified so they can have their say at a public hearing. Once approved, a home can be operated as a vacation rental for only 120 nights per year.

Uptake has been slow. After the bylaw was passed in July 2014, the city sent out letters to all known vacation rental owners asking them to legalize. Only eight applications came forward and six were approved. One was turned down after unanimous opposition by the neighbours, and another was withdrawn.

Two more were approved just before Christmas and another, Duke’s second, is set for public hearing and a council vote this Tuesday, Jan. 26.

One of the big questions has been how to entice more people to legalize. The city has taken a hands-off approach to enforcement, only going after illegal rentals if there’s a complaint. There’s the carrot of being legitimized, but no stick of active enforcement.

A staff report says there was only one complaint about vacation rentals last winter, down from 10 in 2013-14. Despite that, the council is feeling pressure to engage in active enforcement. At the public hearing before Christmas for a rental on Cashato Crescent, neighbours expressed concerns about noise and parking, and asked questions about who to call if there were issues.

More vocal is the Revelstoke Accommodation Association, who approached council twice last year asking them to take a more active approach. They want a crack down on illegal rentals.

“We believe illegal vacation rentals affect every person in our community, if not directly, then indirectly,” Norm Langlois, the president of RAA, told council in November.

It’s an issue facing communities across the world. Next week, we will look at what other communities have done to regulate vacation rentals.

Look for more stories under the banner Development Matters in the Review, Current and Mountaineer.

 

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