MAP: Call issued for focus on unlicensed vacation rentals in White Rock

Mexican flag ‘hoopla’ criticized as less-important use of bylaw officers’ time

Above, a compiled list of all AirBnB listings in the City of White Rock. Addresses may be approximate.

Despite a one per cent rental vacancy rate in the City of White Rock, a number of property owners across the city appear to be turning a profit off renting their homes – or space in their homes – on vacation accommodation websites, contrary to city bylaws.

According to the City of White Rock, there are 13 vacation rentals registered with business licences in the city.

However, a quick scan on AirBnB can return dozens of properties in the city that are offered for anywhere from $50 to $500 a night.

According to White Rock’s director of planning and development services manager Carl Johannsen, vacation rentals in White Rock can only occur in permitted secondary suites that have received a business licence. The property owner, or family member of the property owner, must also live in the home full time.

Apartments, condos and townhomes are not permitted to host vacation rentals.

As of Wednesday, a vacationer can rent the entire apartment above a prominent waterfront restaurant – advertised on AirBnB as the “best location in town” – for about $220 per night. The vacation-rental apartment has reviews dating back to 2016.

Another rental, which has reviews dating back to 2017, offers an entire five-bedroom house near the waterfront for $389 a night. The online advertisement says a minimum of four nights are required.

READ ALSO: B.C. moves to crack down on short-term condo rentals

READ ALSO: Vancouver says it has more than 6,000 illegal short-term rentals in operation

White Rock resident Christian Lane, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on council in the most recent civic election, told Peace Arch News that there can be upwards of 90 bed-and-breakfast type accommodations operating in the city.

Although vacation-type accommodation is important for the city, Lane says the bigger issue is rental vacancy, empty homes and housing affordability for White Rock residents.

“If I were to prioritize one over the other, vacancy is the number one – at this moment. Personally, I would rather have people who live in our community full-time contributing to our businesses, or social scene – whatever it is – over a more transient community. That’s not to say I’m against short-term AirBnB rentals,” Lane told PAN Wednesday.

At the beginning of the year, White Rock Coun. Anthony Manning made a motion, which was endorsed by council, for city staff to prepare a report on how enforcement of illegal AirBnBs could be improved.

Staff were also directed by council to prepare a report on how a five per cent vacancy tax could be implemented in the city.

Lane raised a concern that the empty-property tax – something he also campaigned on during the last election – might attract more non-resident homeowners to use their property as short-term rental accommodation.

“If we don’t get AirBnB or short-term vacation rental bylaw right, and back it up with some meaningful enforcement tools, then we run the risk of seeing even more of these in our community further contributing to the rental vacancy issue,” Lane said.

Johannsen told PAN that city bylaw officers do searches for illegal vacation rentals multiple times per week.

He said that over the past two years, bylaw officers have investigated about 100 vacation rentals.

“About 60 of these listings were un-licensed vacation rentals,” he told PAN in an email, adding that bylaw officers followed up on each one, which resulted in the vacation rentals either being discontinued; being brought into compliance; or being rented for longer than 30 days.

Johannsen said unlicensed vacation rentals “are on the city’s radar, and staff monitor vacation rental listings to ensure they are being conducted in a safe and legal manner.”

Lane, who said he’s been researching the vacation rental issue for a number of weeks, said he would like to see bylaw officers prioritize bylaws relating to housing affordability over parking violations or the Primo’s Mexican Grill flag complaint.

Primo’s Mexican Grill made provincial headlines last month after the restaurant was told by White Rock bylaw enforcement to remove one of the two Mexican flags it was flying in front of their restaurant, because the city bylaw only allows for one flag.

After councillors and the public were made aware of the incident, the city allowed Primo’s to amend its signage permit to include both flags.

READ ALSO: White Rock Mexican restaurant told to remove flag from patio

READ ALSO: White Rock Mexican restaurant now allowed to fly both flags

“You create this whole bloody hoopla over a silly flag issue, which can be rapidly addressed. How much time and energy did bylaw officers have to exert to go down, visit, speak to, write reports and so fourth. Ultimately, what did it achieve? Nothing,” Lane said.

“In my background professionally, being law enforcement, part of what we do is prioritize our enforcement activities based on a number of factors that are important to the government of the day. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be prioritizing our bylaw enforcement efforts to what is important to the citizenry, the community, and the government of the day.”

White Rock resident Elizabeth Mulhem contacted PAN about a vacation rental near her home on Parker Street last week.

She said city bylaw isn’t doing enough about the house, which has hosted parties until 4 a.m. with up to 60 people in attendance.

“We would like to see bylaw officers challenging these unlicensed hotels in residential areas as much as they go after those pesky flags,” Mulhem wrote to PAN.

Although the city’s rental vacancy rate is 1.1 per cent, according to 2018 report by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the city has very limited resources in terms of purpose-built vacation accommodation.

The Ocean Promenade Hotel, located on the beach, is White Rock’s only operating hotel. The Pacific Inn and Suites, located in South Surrey, is the nearest hotel, however it’s closed for renovations and will reopen as the Doubletree Hilton Pacific Inn.

Johannsen noted the lack of hotels in the area, and said that it’s important for the city to support vacation rentals.

“But in a way that minimized impacts on neighbours, doesn’t reduce the overall availability of rental stock (ie. rental apartments), and only occurs in legal, registered secondary suites,” Johannsen wrote.

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