The debate over short-term rentals is headed to Bowen Island.
The community of about about 4,200 people off West Vancouver is preparing to consider whether to opt into the province’s new legislation governing short-term accommodation.
Those new regulations, which automatically apply to communities larger than 10,000 residents, restrict short-term rental usage to homes that are a primary residence or a secondary suite. Smaller communities have the option to voluntarily opt in.
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The prospect is contentious in the community, particularly to people like Julie Walsh, whose family has owned a three-bedroom cabin on the island for generations.
“We spent every summer here from the day school go tout to the day before school got back,” Walsh said of the 1967-built cabin. “It is wonderful to have property but we don’t have disposable income. We’re all middle income workers, we’re retired now.”
Walsh told Global News her extended family uses the property from June to September, and makes use of short-term rentals for the rest of the year in order to pay for maintenance and upkeep of the cabin.
Without that income, she said, they’ll be forced to sell it.
“I understand this is a huge privilege, but this is also our heritage, this is our family,” she said. “We have generations of people that comes and stay here, we have cousins that come and stay, my nephews come stay with their children.”
Bowen Island already has regulations governing short-term rentals, implemented in 2020.
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Those rules allow a full home to be used for short-term rentals for fewer than 120 days a year after acquiring a business licence.
A 2023 municipal review of short-term rentals on the island found 78 properties licensed as such Residential Guest Accommodations, up from 21 in 2021.
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Twenty-five of those properties being listed as a short-term rental did not have the owner using the home as their primary residence.
Murray Atherton, who chairs the Bowen Island Chamber of Commerce, said those properties are critical to keeping Bowen Island’s tourism-driven economy alive.
“The people who come here that stay at the different accommodations … they go into the restaurants, they go into the grocery stores, they are supporting the butchers, the wineries, we’ve got two cideries on the island,” he said. “They’re visiting all these places and they’re spending money.”
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Atherton said Bowen Island has been discovered as a destination in recent years, with an explosion in restaurants and businesses as a result.
But without a hotel, the community needs somewhere for visitors to stay.
“I am hoping that they will realize they’re only talking about 25 properties and they realize the damage they will do to the economy if they do shut them down until we get a hotel, until we become a full-service resort,” he said.
Bowen Island Mayor Andrew Leonard said council hasn’t made a decision one way or another on opting into the province’s new rules.
Like every community in B.C., he said the island is grappling with the issue of affordable housing, and that businesses from grocery stores to restaurants are having trouble housing workers — an issue that becomes even more prevalent in the busy summer.
“What we have been surprised at is the proliferation of those rentals, so within three years we’ve seen short-term rentals triple in terms of business licensing, and for rentals that happen within a residential home they’ve almost quadrupled,” he said. “It’s increasingly, with the market trends, becoming unaffordable, there’s very few rentals available here and the rentals that are available often get snapped up by short-term rentals.”
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Council is set to receive a staff report on the matter on Monday, and Leonard said he expects the matter to be referred to the municipality’s Housing Advisory and Community Economic committees.
He said the municipality is also expected to send out surveys to residents and hold open houses to get community feedback on how to move forward.
“Part of what we are seeing with short-term rentals, and I think its a fair discussion to have, is whether non-principal resident homes should effectively be running commercial operations in residential neighbourhoods,” he said. “I don’t lean one way or the other right now, but I am very curious to know what our community thinks, I am very curious to know what our short-term renal operators think, and ultimately use that information to make an informed decision.”
Leonard added that rather than opt in to the province’s rules, council could also choose to tweak its existing regulations if it feels they need to be improved.
Communities like Bowen Island have until March 31 to opt in to the legislation, which would see regulations take effect Nov. 1, 2024.
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