British Columbia

'It's intentionally that way': nearly 1 in 5 dwellings in Whistler, B.C., listed on Airbnb

In most of Canada, if you came across a community where almost 20 per cent of properties were listed on Airbnb — and nearly two-thirds were hosted by someone with multiple listings — there would likely be huge political upheaval. But Whistler, B.C., is different.

Decades-old zoning laws mean it's not the hot-button issue you might expect

Much of Whistler, B.C., has been zoned for nightly rental for decades, allowing property owners of townhouses and apartments flexibility in how they choose to rent their units. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

In most of Canada, if you came across a community where almost 20 per cent of properties were listed on Airbnb — and nearly two-thirds were hosted by someone with multiple listings — there would likely be huge political upheaval. 

But in Whistler, B.C.?

"It's intentionally that way," said Mayor Jack Crompton. 

Of the 17 Canadian cities for which CBC News collected Airbnb listing data on April 10, Whistler, 120 kilometres north of Vancouver, had by far the highest percentage of properties listed on Airbnb, and the second highest per cent of listings managed by a multi-lister. 

However, despite the combination of so many Airbnb listings and a shortage of affordable housing, the organization doesn't find itself a target — even from the hotel industry. 

"Whistler is doing the best it can, and in fact in many ways it is seen as a role model," said Saad Hasan, president of the Hotel Association of Whistler.

"[But] there's always enforcement, and there's always the need to keep an eye out."

Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton says the municipality works hard to ensure there are enough housing units geared to tourists and enough geared to the permanent population. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Unique zoning map

The reason for rampant Airbnb use not being a political hot potato lies in Whistler's unique zoning laws, set up decades ago to accommodate the tourists and seasonal workers necessary for the ski hills to thrive.

"We have two groups of housing. One is committed to residential accommodation, and the other is zoned for tourism accommodation," said Crompton, who was acclaimed as mayor in the last election when nobody ran against him.  

In areas zoned for nightly rental in places right next to chair lifts, it's not uncommon to see 25 or 30 units per block available on Airbnb.

But in residential neighbourhoods, those listings are few and far between, usually with no reviews.

One reason might be a 2017 bylaw, which required people to purchase a business licence from the municipality if they wanted to operate short-term rentals, and banning them from traditionally zoned neighbourhoods — making it easy for the city to impose $1,000 daily penalties on owners not following the rules.

"It's a success story," said Crompton. 

"We modernized our tools and then ensured that people understand where they can rent their accommodation to tourists, and where it's required for people to be residents of our community and live in those homes." 

 

Hosts acknowledge tight market 

Bill Lee is probably the most ubiquitous Airbnb "host" in Whistler, with over 4,200 reviews for his 21 properties. 

Most of those reviewers won't ever see Lee in person — three supervisors oversee the collection of properties he and family members own — and he says he understands the service hasn't been entirely a net positive for local renters. 

"A whole bunch of these apartments in Whistler Village, although they're zoned for nightly rentals, people hadn't really been renting them out nightly because it was difficult to do, but now they're doing it because Airbnb makes it easier," he said. 

Cheryl Waters started Whistler Reception in 2004, and now provides check-in and concierge services for over 500 properties in Whistler, some of which are on Airbnb. 

She said Airbnb hadn't changed the culture around vacation rentals, because zoning rules and online bookings were already things Whistler was well acquainted with. But the volume of rentals increased.

"Owner-direct website platforms: that's how a lot of owners had been operating here for in excess of 10 years," said Waters. 

"Have they brought new markets? I don't really know, but they have brought business, and an abundance of it."

At the same time, Waters said the new enforcement rules were having the desired impact, in a municipality where short-term rentals will always be seen through a different lens than in the vast majority of cities. 

"Vancouver is not used to as many short-term private rentals as Whistler is," she said. 

"I mean, it's just the way of life here."


METHODOLOGY: How did CBC analyze Airbnb listings?

CBC monitored and collected the price, number of reviews, star rating and geolocation of all listings advertising an entire home or suite that appeared on Airbnb's website on April 10, 2019 for 17 Canadian cities. A minority of listings might be duplicates of the same property created by the same host as a marketing strategy. 

CBC used the total number of private dwellings, from the 2016 census, to estimate the percentage of homes that are listed on Airbnb in Whistler.

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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