Master's thesis details how Airbnb has become a problem for housing supply and affordability in Vancouver

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      An SFU student’s master’s thesis contains a wealth of data about how city of Vancouver residents use Airbnb and how the short-term rental (STR) service impacts housing across the region.

      It concludes that the app, which connects short-term renters with a place to stay, is very likely having a negative effect on supply and affordability.

      For more than a year, Karen Sawatzky has pored over Airbnb data collected on three dates: November 29, 2014, July 1, 2015, and December 3, 2015.

      On those days, she found, the number of listings for the city of Vancouver increased, from 2,898 to 3,746, to 4,726.

      “Airbnb listings grew by 63 percent over the study period, were composed mainly of entire-unit listings and were concentrated in the areas with the most long-term rental housing,” the paper’s abstract states. “The author concludes that the unregulated growth of Airbnb undermines the city’s ability to achieve its housing goals.”

      The document was released online today (November 2) ahead of Sawatzky completing her degree. It focuses on Vancouver because, as is noted there, while the region’s first city accounts for 26 percent of its population, it holds 74 percent of Metro Vancouver’s Airbnb listings.

      “The rate of listings growth in 2015, the disproportionate percentage of Vancouver Airbnb listings in relation to the city’s size and the city’s high occupancy rate all suggest that new regulation is needed to control and even decrease the amount of Vancouver’s housing space that is being used for tourist purposes,” Sawatzky writes. “If not, the existing quantity of listings and continued growth is likely to undermine the city’s ability to achieve its policy goals of protecting and increasing the existing rental stock.”

      Within the city of Vancouver, the paper looks at listings by neighbourhood.

      It states that in December 2015, the downtown core had the most listings, with 1,518. Kitsilano ranked second, with 572. Mountain Pleasant was third with 485, Grandview-Woodland was fourth with 304, and Fairview ranked fifth with 266.

      “The fact that Airbnb units are concentrated in the parts of the city where most of the renters live and where much of the easily converted secondary rental units are found is cause for concern given the overall shortage of rental units,” the paper notes. “This data shows that the majority of Vancouver tenants and Airbnb visitors are seeking shelter, whether short-term or long-term, in the same areas – and are thus being put into competition for the same scarce resource. Given that, as of 2011, 46 percent of Vancouver renters were paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing costs, it is unlikely that renters will collectively end up on the winning side of this competition."

      Karen Sawatzky

      Sawatzky explains that all of those listings are likely a problem because most of them are for an entire dwelling (instead of for a room). That suggests Vancouver residents posting listings on Airbnb might not be living in those units, but rather are operating them as a business, and thus subtracting from the city’s rental stock.

      In December 2015, 3,179 of 4,726 listings or 67 percent were for an entire residence, according to the paper.

      “Renting out entire units only occasionally, when the usual occupant is away for a short time, does not subtract from the housing supply available to residents, because a resident occupies the unit before and after the STR booking,” it reads. “However, if a unit is used only for STR purposes, that unit may be subtracting from the supply of housing available for residents. Entire units made up the vast majority of listings over the course of my study period – between 67 and 71 percent depending on the date.”

      On September 28, Mayor Gregor Robertson announced new regulations that the city is proposing to bring Vancouver’s booming Airbnb market under control.

      “Our approach is to strike a balance between regulating the short-term rentals and ensuring that some people can continue to do that,” Robertson said. “Housing is first and foremost about homes, not about operating a business.”

      He noted that the city’s vacancy rate is estimated to stand at 0.6 percent.

      According to Sawatzky’s research, if every full-time entire-unit listing on Airbnb for Vancouver was returned to the long-term rental stock, the city’s vacancy rate would increase by 0.85 percent.

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