Jon Day and Vicki Coles have two vastly different experiences with the short-term home rentals that Vancouver homeowners have been offering on sites such as Airbnb.
Day, who rents out an additional dwelling unit attached to his home, uses it to help pay the mortgage on his house, and he only rents it out when friends or family aren’t coming to visit.
His neighbors are interested in doing the same and sometimes ask him for advice. He’s had no complaints, he said.
Coles doesn’t rent out her home, but the owner of a house a few blocks away does. There are weeknight outdoor hot tub parties and stripteases, and cars line the streets to visit the house for these parties, Coles said. The owner lives in Portland and doesn’t seem to have much regard for the neighbors’ complaints, she said.
Vancouver city officials are finding themselves caught in the middle of this range of experiences with their only tools at hand being bed-and-breakfast regulations that were put in place before Airbnb even existed.
About 250 Airbnbs operate in the city. All of them technically are operating outside of the legalities of the city code. So as complaints pile up because of homes like Coles’ neighbor, the city is avoiding ordering Airbnbs to shut down as it collects public opinion on how it should reform laws for short-term rentals.
A few weeks ago, Day picked up his mail that had accumulated over a few days. He had received two letters from the city.
Upon opening the first, his “stomach dropped,” he said.
The letter stated that the city was asking him “to immediately cease operations of any short-term rentals” that weren’t officially registered bed-and-breakfasts to avoid a financial penalty.
“That got my heart rate really going,” said Day.
But the second letter that Day opened, which the city sent days after the first, eased his worries. It said the first letter was “sent in error,” and the city is not asking Airbnb owners to stop their rentals.
These two letters were sent by the city of Vancouver to about 250 Vancouver homeowners that use Airbnb, Vrbo or another short-term rental website.
For about two years, Day had been in contact with city employees about permitting and code compliance while he built his ADU. At that time, the city said it was OK that he rented it as an Airbnb, he said.
But according to the city of Vancouver’s website, a short-term rental is “when you rent your entire home, a room within your home, a separate guesthouse or Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) to individuals for less than 30 days.”
The current city law regarding Land Use and Development Code, VMC Chapter 20, “does not allow short-term rentals in residential zones.”
It wasn’t information that Day was aware of, and city workers didn’t tell him, he said.
In both letters, the city asked homeowners to give input on the short-term rental issues before the Vancouver City Council can discuss and vote on them. A survey can be found at beheardvancouver.org/short-term-rentals.
For years, city officials and councilors have received emails about short-term rentals, and a recent increase in complaints prompted the letter, according to Jason Nortz, development review division manager.
“We’ve seen an uptick in the types of Airbnb short-term rental users,” said Nortz. “The mayor’s phone has started to ring with complaints. There are parking issues, noise from party houses.”
Nortz said the survey responses would influence the city council when the issue is brought up for discussion in the early spring. The city also uses a data service called Granicus host compliance to find out who’s renting out their homes.
“With data of the number of units and where they’re concentrated, we’ll have council advise on next steps. We’re at the early stages of the conversation of what to do next.”
City Councilor Bart Hansen said he’s gotten “probably half a dozen to a dozen” complaints going both ways with the Airbnb issue.
“Over the past few years, we’ve gotten some sort of feedback on short-term rentals,” Hansen said. “Now it’s starting to pick up considerably. We’re starting to get more emails. The concerns are starting to diversif y: Parking, noise and quality of life.”
Hansen said that there’s a “happy medium” that he will aim for with any future ordinance changes, but he said the issues with homeowners’ quality of life and safety must be addressed.
Hansen said possible changes could include requirements for permitting, parking spots, business licenses and a rules that owners must live on the property being rented.
Day and his wife, Kate Day, who use their ADU mostly for visits from friends and in-laws but for short-term rentals in-between, are concerned that their supplemental income may disappear. But the couple, who work from home, say they enjoy meeting their guests, who are mostly older couples traveling from out of state.
“This is one of the most fun things in our life right now,” Kate Day said. “We’re providing a valuable service.”
“Short-term rentals support local economies across Washington and give residents a way to supplement their income — this is more important than ever as changes in personal finances caused by the pandemic have inspired people to start sharing their extra space with travelers and the city looks to recover from the impacts of the pandemic,” a spokesperson for Airbnb wrote in a statement to The Columbian.
“Airbnb is focused on supporting the return of the local tourism economy by empowering residents to supplement their income by sharing their homes, and working with elected officials on sensible policies,” the statement said.
But for others not so enthusiastic about short-term rentals, such as Coles, they see their quality of life decreasing with cars parking on grass, shouting from decks on weeknights and people wandering down the road in the middle of the night.
“Every weekend, we dread what is going to happen,” she said.