Panoramic ocean views taken by cameras suspended over the island’s edge or awnings poking out of overgrown greenery greet potential visitors browsing Bowen’s AirBnB listings. One can rent an entire cottage on the sea and escape to the Happy Isle like thousands did during the Union Steamship days. Problem is, many or most of these listings are illegal.
On the edge of legality
Renting an entire dwelling for a period shorter than 30 days is illegal in most parts of the island. But over the next couple of months the municipality is looking for public input for a short-term rental policy, one that would regulate these operations.
There are exceptions: bed and breakfasts are legal throughout the island and half a dozen pockets of land have been rezoned to allow commercial guest rentals (such as Rivendell, the Orchard, Xenia and Artisan Suites).
While short-term rentals are technically illegal, the municipality hasn’t always enforced the bylaw. Tourism Bowen has several vacation listings on its website and last December municipal council opted to not pursue enforcement for a short-term rental while the municipality sorted out regulation.
The municipality estimates that there are 123 short-term rentals on Bowen Island. As of May 13, six business licenses for bed and breakfasts had been issued with seven more in the processing stage.
What’s all the fuss about?
The crux of the tension comes down to the housing crisis and tourism.
Houses used for short-term rentals are outside of the long-term rental stock and Bowen has a rental housing shortage (BIM’s community profile says that one per cent of the homes built since 2011 are rentals). However, some argue that these houses wouldn’t be part of the long-term rental stock anyway as they’re vacation homes that are periodically used by owners. The short-term rentals offer a source of income for owners facing ever-increasing property taxes.
There’s also that Bowen doesn’t have a hotel and tourism is steadily increasing. Summer ferry traffic rose by six per cent in 2018 and Tourism Bowen met more than 21,000 tourists last year (this is up from 14,000 in 2017 but some of the discrepancy can be attributed to improved services). Tourists need places to stay.
Advocates for short-term rentals argue that these visitors infuse money into the local economy and that those who maintain the properties contribute economically by employing locals for renovations, services and upkeep.
In a letter to council (included in the agenda of the December 10 council meeting) Jan Stevens of Bowen Island Accommodations estimated that in 2017 her business spent $72,500 locally maintaining five properties she manages.
A wrench in this is that many businesses can’t find the staff to keep their businesses running full tilt as there’s no accommodation. Union Steamship Company Marina felt this this crunch so severely that it started building its own floating staff accommodations.
In her letter to council Stevens argues that many of the properties that she manages are so high end that they wouldn’t be affordable to service workers, even if they were sold or rented.
Another complexity is that landowners who have had bad experiences with long-term renters can be reluctant to rent long-term again so the flexibility offered with short-term rentals is appealing. On the other hand, short-term renters can be noisy and disruptive for neighbours and can change neighbourhood character.
Bowen isn’t the only municipality facing these crunches
Vancouver brought in a short-term rental bylaw in 2018 that only allows listings if the home is also a primary residence and saw a 40 per cent reduction from its peak rental listings number according to CBC.
Tofino, as a resort town, uses zoning and business licensing to regulate short-term rentals. There must be a long-term dwelling on the property, and it must be in one of six residential zones. There’s a business licence fee of between $375 and $750 and each property can have a maximum of six guests. Between 2014 and 2018 the number of short-term rentals in Tofino grew from 29 to 223.
When it comes to Bowen’s policy, BIM notes on its website that a key consideration is capacity to “administer and enforce the regulations.”
The options include: business licenses (municipality would keep track of rentals and impose conditions through licenses); zoning (through a public process the municipality would decide where short-term rentals could exist); temporary use permits (the prohibition would remain in place and on a case -by-case basis, operators would apply for limited-period permits); principal residences only (someone would have to be living on the property); cap on days per year (for example in Revelstoke you can only do short-term rentals for four months out of the year); entire home restriction (so the entire house can’t be rented out, in Richmond the operator must also live in the house); municipal and regional tax (an up to three per cent tax on accommodations).
I have opinions, how do I let the municipality know?
There’s an open house on June 6 at BIM between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
There’s also an online survey that closes June 23. And there’s always writing letters to mayor and council.
Clarification: this post was edited to reflect that BIM has issued six business licences for bed and breakfasts (the only legal form of short term rental for most of the island.)