In Our View: Beware the Airbnb Effect

Vancouver City Council should maintain restrictions on accessory dwelling units

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As the Vancouver City Council laudably attempts to deal with the city’s housing crisis, we urge officials to proceed with caution.

This applies to consideration of regulations covering accessory dwelling units — typically a small dwelling located behind an established home. Council members are pondering whether to relax restrictions upon such dwellings — most notably a requirement for on-site parking and a requirement that the owner reside on the property at least six months a year — in hopes of easing the area’s housing crunch.

While all reasonable ideas for increasing the housing supply and making residences more affordable are worthy of consideration, we urge councilors to maintain these established restrictions on accessory dwelling units.

Call it the Airbnb Effect, in acknowledgement of the impact the online hospitality service has had upon housing markets throughout the country. As Business Insider wrote last year, “The few surveys that have looked at the issue suggest Airbnb is affecting prices of both rent and purchases, mainly in the center of large cities where tourists visit.” That is because the online marketer, which allows people to rent out extra rooms or dwellings, is increasingly being seen as an investment opportunity. Properties become de facto hotels, with absentee owners purchasing a home or adding an accessory dwelling solely for the purpose of renting it out.

Whether or not this is a factor in Vancouver is difficult to determine. Clark County is not as attractive a tourist destination as, say, Portland or Seattle. But the area’s proximity to Portland suggests that the Airbnb Effect is in play in Vancouver, and a check of the hospitality website seems to confirm this suspicion. A quick glance of 100 rental opportunities shows that 41 of them list the “entire home” available for rental, suggesting that they are not owner occupied. Of those, more than one dozen are accessory dwellings — tiny homes on the back of the property or rooms above a garage.

Now, 100 units or 41 units or a dozen units are not going to impact Vancouver’s housing crunch. But a close look at the issue is instructive as the city deals with a pressing housing problem.

While we encourage efforts to increase affordable housing, it also is essential to preserve the quality of life for neighbors. Because of that, officials should adhere to current requirements for on-site parking before an accessory dwelling may be constructed. Any measure that exacerbates a shortage of on-street parking should be rejected.

Officials also should tread lightly before relaxing the requirement that owners occupy a home before allowing an additional dwelling to be constructed. In many cases, the extra housing would be used as a long-term rental property or a so-called “mother-in-law dwelling.” That would, indeed, help ease the city’s dearth of affordable housing. But city leaders should examine the impact that accessory dwelling units have had upon similar-sized cities, particularly those that are part of a desirable metropolitan area.

At a meeting Monday, city Councilors Alishia Topper and Ty Stober seemed to favor a relaxation of the current restrictions, and their desire to address housing issues is commendable. As Topper said, “We’re trying to achieve a specific goal and that is to build more affordable housing in our community.”

We agree with that goal, but easing restrictions upon accessory dwellings could have unintended consequences that must be considered. Just call it the Airbnb Effect.