Monday, February 4, 2019

21st Century Housing Includes Short Term Rentals

Online rental, marketing, and social-interaction platforms are transforming the way many of us live.  Our regulatory systems, however, are locked within an outdate vision of the world more comfortable in the 1950s than in 2019. We need to bring our planning and zoning frameworks into the 21st century. We can see this quite clearly in the discussions around online home and room renting platforms where worry and anxiety underlies much of the discussion and regulations tend to burdensome or none existent.   

Many people express worry about security that can be summarized as follows: “Short-term rentals can present challenges in terms of noise, security, property damage and theft, and littering.”  There is no evidence, for example, of this happening at UBC.  It is easy to find news articles about offending short-term rental operators - in North Vancouver, in Yaletown, everywhere but UBC. Even when stories can be found they are rare events. The worries about safety and disruption aren’t accurate in general, and are definitely incorrect in terms of the UBC area.

Who are the guests who frequent short term rentals at UBC? UBC is quite some commute from the busy urban core and the heart of tourist attractions.  If a person wants a short term rental at UBC they typically have a UBC-related reason. From what I have learned most guests are people such as a faculty member coming to teach a short-term course, scholars attending conferences, medical practitioners completing upgrade courses or writing exams, parents and grandparents visiting family attending UBC or visiting UBC to see if this is the right place for their child to enrol.   From all the evidence that I can see there is no problem at UBC with short term rentals - yet, there remains a general worry about disruption by strangers.  Short term rental guests are normal people like you and me.  How are these people really any more of a disturbance or a threat to community wellbeing then we ourselves already are?

There is more noise from neighbourhood children (which I enjoy), the sports teams cutting through the UNA public realm to UBC’s Thunderbird Precinct (arguably one of the great things about campus) and the UBC marching band trundling down main mall then there ever could be from a short term rental guest.  Our neighbours at Totem Park can be boisterous and occasionally the young men in Fraternity Village turn up their speakers too loud. All of the sporting events and concerts and student dormitory events produce far more traffic from ‘unknown’ people than any of the couple dozen short term rentals on campus could ever do.  Misuse of UNA visitor parking passes creates more parking issues than any guest might. Many of us live in multi-unit housing complexes where it is very unlikely we actually know (or even recognizes) all of own immediate neighbours.  Yet the persistent fear of short term rental guests as strangers persists.

We live in a complex dense urban environment that is filled with all kinds of 'disturbances.'  The net effect of a short term rental is negligible in real material terms.  The more fundamental problem is the way contemporary planning places increased density ahead of all other concerns: that's the real problem we all face and the source of much of the anxiety people express. But this is a societal, not a local problem. Fixating on one small attribute won’t solve the fundamental problem of overcrowding in urban communities.

There does need to be a place for short term rentals on campus. Right now they exist in a grey zone – not explicitly banned, not clearly supported. It’s time for UBC to step into the 21st century and create the regulatory framework to ensure short term rentals have the place they should in our cosmopolitan urban community.  Part of what contributes to a vibrant community is the mix of people. UBC constantly talks about the benefits of diversity – that diversity should include diversity of housing options that clearly include short term shared rentals.