Short-Term, Not Short-Sighted: Vacation Rentals on Bowen Island

Killarney Lake on Bowen Island   photo taken by Jan Stevens

Restrictions on short-term vacation rentals (STVR) are becoming more common in municipalities across BC. While there are some concerns many of these municipalities have in common, such as housing and regulatory issues, it’s important to consider the many factors around this complicated issue before assuming that restricting vacation rentals will have the same effect in all locales, let alone a beneficial effect. Bowen Island is a unique case, and it’s likely that restricting short-term rentals here won’t solve the housing problem, but certainly will limit tourist dollars and employment opportunities.

Vancouver Restricts Short-Term Rentals

Our city neighbour, Vancouver, has seen the recent restriction of short-term vacation rentals. The belief is that this action will return 1000 real units to the long-term rental market. Vancouver has a variety of units available on Airbnb and other rental sites, such as suites in houses, rooms, and whole apartments.

On April 1, 2018, Vancouver implemented its ban on short-term rentals of secondary suites and restrictions on renting primary residences as short-term rentals. It is part of a set of initiatives to free up potential long-term rental units, be they suites, or homes bought as investments and never used otherwise.

The Coastal Mountains as seen from the Lazy Bowen Hideaway  photo by Jan Stevens

Would a STVR Ban on Bowen Affect Housing?

We sometimes hear the call on Bowen to ban short-term vacation rentals as well, the main reason being that there is a need for long-term rental housing. These two issues aren’t necessarily linked, however, because on Bowen Island, the shape of rentals is a little different than in other municipalities like Vancouver.

For instance, there are whole houses here that owners use for their vacations, left empty part of the year. There are also suites in houses that the owners want to keep available for family and friends to use when they visit. In many of these situations, the owners have never rented these units out long-term, and never intend to, as this would restrict their ability to use it themselves. Banning short-term vacation rentals in these cases would leave these homes mostly empty, and would no longer serve the community by providing places to stay for visitors who spend their tourist dollars here.

Housing is indeed needed on Bowen for the valuable workers and citizens who make our economy and community run, but it’s affordable housing that’s required. Many of the vacation rentals we see, if rented long-term, would not be affordable to those who need housing the most on Bowen. These second homes are often high-end and would rent for more than the average service worker can afford.

If homeowners were forced to rent out their secondary properties long-term, not short-term, in order to keep and enjoy the property themselves, this could lead to situations where renters are asked to leave for whole months or seasons. In fact, we’ve seen this happen on Bowen Island already, where homeowners choose to rent long-term instead of short-term but still want to use the property themselves. On other popular vacationing islands like Hornby Island, this is common, and many year-round residents have to move out for two or three months in the summer and find temporary housing. If they can’t find it on-island, they seek elsewhere, away from their home community and places of work.

It’s true that there isn’t enough housing for summer employees for restaurants and other businesses, kept busy by the fair-weather tourists. Having unstable long-term rentals where renters must agree to move off-island in the summer isn’t a viable solution. Instead, it further limits the summer employee pool when it’s needed the most.

Diversity of ownership is also beneficial to Bowen Island. The ability to Vacation Rent a private vacation home or even a primary home allows less affluent homeowners to own a BI property while supporting the Tourism economy. Otherwise, more affluent homeowners without the need for additional income would leave their secondary vacation homes empty and used only during their holidays, minimizing their ongoing contribution to the Bowen economy.

Case in point: When I inherited my aunt Jerry’s property in 2004 I had no idea how as a divorced self-employed Mom I would pay for owning this longtime family vacation home. The property was purchased in 1954 and was a major part of our family history.  I too wanted to be able to use the property for our family vacations. Having a long-term renter would have eliminated our option to use it as our vacation property so we began short-term vacation renting the property occasionally to help pay for the overhead. Fourteen years later we are proud to report that not only have we covered our overhead but we have contributed to the Bowen economy through wages paid, improvements required and providing Tourists to help sustain BI businesses.

Short-term vacation rentals and long-term rental housing are not mutually exclusive concepts. Banning the former won’t solve the latter here on Bowen Island. A ban would, however, make a sizeable negative impact on the economy.

Eaglecliff Beach, Bowen Island  photo taken by Jan Stevens

Alternative Solutions

PST on Airbnb

Bowen Island Accommodations is proud to pay into the British Columbia coffers by charging the 8% hotel provincial sales tax plus 5% GST. Bowen Island has a handful of businesses that currently pay this hotel PST. However, that will soon change with the new agreement between BC and Airbnb; all short-term rentals booked through Airbnb will be collecting the 8% Provincial Sales Tax.

It is the first of its kind in Canada. Once these legislative and regulatory changes are made, Airbnb will begin collecting the 8% provincial sales tax (PST) and an up-to-3% municipal and regional district tax (MRDT) on short-term accommodations provided in BC through its platform.

We are pleased to learn that the revenue raised from the new tax agreement will be used to fund affordable housing projects in our province and hopefully help to address the Bowen Island affordable housing dilemma.

Review of Long-Term Rental Regulations

The BC long-term rental regulations provide necessary protections against unfair landlords. We are also aware of cases where these protections have had undue impacts on landlords, where property owners renting to long-term tenants have incurred extensive unreimbursed damages, and have had to deal with long eviction times with limited owner protections.

Based on these challenging and expensive experiences, short-term renting can appear more desirable for owners. We believe it may be beneficial to the long-term rental inventory for the province to take another look at the regulations to negotiate new equity between the owner and renter.

The Benefits of STVR on Bowen Island

Short-term vacation rentals provide places to stay for visitors. Unlike other municipalities, we don’t have hotels here, and there is a high demand from tourists for places to stay, more so than is provided by conventional bed and breakfasts. Many people want their own space or a large space to bring a whole family, and this can be provided by short-term vacation rental homes and suites.

Tourists are spending money on their rental, food, gas, culture, and experiences on Bowen Island, and are integral to our local economy. The promotion that we and other vacation rental owners do in the off-season means that we all benefit from tourist dollars not just in the summer, but throughout the year, which helps keep businesses (restaurants, shops, services) open for locals to enjoy as well.

Some of those who benefit from these year-round tourist dollars are workers involved directly in the vacation rental economy. One Bowen Island Accommodations property made $250,000 in improvements in the last four years, all reliant on local contractors, architect, and casual labourers.  Vacation rental offerings must stay well-maintained and aesthetically up-to-date, and local workers help us to this end. The regular employment provided to our valuable cleaning staff and trades professionals are dollars we as business owners spend that also circulate in the local economy. If these short-term rentals were banned and left empty for occasional owner use, as they likely would be, these employment opportunities would be gone or heavily reduced.

Bowen Island Accommodations operates five vacation rentals on Bowen. In the past year, we have spent:
  • $35,500 on housekeepers
  • $4,993 on gardeners
  • $31,970 on contractors and handymen. 
That equals close to $72,500 spent on Bowen Island, which will be recirculated throughout the local economy.

Neighbouring properties to our vacation rentals benefit from the regular maintenance and improvements, adding value to the total neighbourhood.

Tunstall Bay    photo taken by Raf

Keeping Profiles Low and Standards High

Having a culture of well-managed short-term rentals on Bowen is essential if short-term rentals are to be accepted by the community.

At Bowen Island Accommodations, we are on-call to address any noise complaints, and we strive to have our vacation rentals fit in quietly with the surrounding neighbourhoods. Long-term tenants who are noisy or a disturbance to the neighbourhood can be reported but difficult to evict if that is the preferred outcome for the neighbours or home-owners. Short-term renters are there temporarily, and in our experience, most are here to enjoy the quiet and peace of our island. At BIA, we strive to connect with other vacation rental managers through the Bowen Island Accommodations Association and Tourism Bowen Island to share best practices and communicate about the importance of noise management and neighbourhood integrity.

Through our communications, we also aim to provide visitors with value-added information about Bowen Island. We have been building our website up to be a resource for all information tourists could want and need while on Bowen, including lists of activities, restaurants, events to go to, and services to enjoy, and featuring these on our blog and newsletters as well. We encourage our guests to sample all that Bowen Island has to offer, and by doing so, direct their tourist dollars to the community.

With Airbnb, VRBO, and other online platforms, anyone can manage their vacation rental. Those who are new to this income stream may not know the importance of considering neighbours or promoting Bowen businesses. By staying connected as a community of vacation rental providers, we can share our combined knowledge so that short-term rentals continue to be a real benefit to Bowen Island.

The issue of affordable housing and people using short-term vacation renting as a means of income is a greater issue than just Bowen Island’s, but Bowen Island has it’s own context to consider as well. Affordable housing projects and policies are needed, and solutions are out there, but banning short-term rentals here isn’t one of them. A deeper look at the issues involved will show that the loss of short-term rentals will have unintended effects and that the real-time benefits to the community and economy are many.