Housing advocates push Whitehorse to consider short-term rental rules

An apartment building in Whitehorse. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)
An apartment building in Whitehorse. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)

With the endemic housing crisis grinding on, the City of Whitehorse will look again at regulations for the short-term rental sector.

Housing advocates say companies such as Airbnb and Vrbo divert housing stock from the rental market in favour of lucrative short-term stays. Regulating the industry is on the Safe At Home Society's list of housing calls to action.

Whitehorse city council wants to find ways to promote more housing construction in the city. But speaking during debate on the city's proposed new official community plan, Coun. Michelle Friesen said there's not much point if new units just end up rented out to travellers.

"If we do develop and identify this range of housing types we need to meet residents's needs, it's not really going to help us if somebody can come and just purchase them all and then rent them out as short-term vacation rentals," she said.

Currently there are no rules governing short-term rentals. The city mulled regulations in 2019, but the measures went nowhere. Many cities in Canada require, at minimum, a business license. Some cities limit who can own short-term rentals, or how many homes can be used for the purpose in a given area.

Ben Pereira, the president of Neighbourly North, a company that offers short-term rentals in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, said his company holds standing contracts with First Nations and government agencies who need short-term housing, including health-care staff and vulnerable people.

Pereira said he's not necessarily opposed to regulation. But, he thinks his industry is unfairly blamed for housing woes.

"To the extent that we engage with politicians or housing activists that are suggesting regulating short-term rentals, they typically misunderstand the point or the initiatives that they're promoting," he said. "I think fundamentally [they] fail to recognize that this is an essential part of the lodging and housing spectrum."

Like Airbnb and Vrbo, property owners can list their places for rent through Neighbourly North. Pereira said the company takes steps to preserve affordable housing: it does not allow properties whose last tenants were evicted or that charged below-market rents.

Mayor Laura Cabott said the city's housing advisory committee — not the official community plan — is the best place to discuss short-term rental regulation.

"I just think throwing something in there [to the OCP] last minute might not be very prudent," she said. "It is very complex. We haven't done the analysis and we actually haven't even done any sort of public engagement on that."