Airbnb takes off in the valley

Unofficial accommodation options, through the popular rental website Airbnb, are cropping up in the Upper Columbia Valley rapidly.

Unofficial accommodation options, through the popular room and home rental website Airbnb, are cropping up in the Upper Columbia Valley and across the entire Kootenay region at a speedy rate.

Airbnb launched eight years ago and lets people list rooms, beds, apartments or entire homes for short-term rental (usually rented by the night) and has since expanded to thousands of cities and towns in nearly 200 countries at least 20 Kootenay communities among them, including Invermere, Panorama Mountain Resort, Radium Hot Springs, Fairmont Hot Spring and Canal Flats.

A recent Kootenay Business magazine story reported that there are 1,675 rooms or properties to rent in the region, including 126 in Radium Hot Springs (at an average cost of $194 per night), 123 in Invermere/Panorama (average cost of $197 per night), 121 in Fairmont Hot Springs (average cost of $199 per night) and 34 in Canal Flats (average cost of $222 per night). The Kootenay Business story, written in mid-July, did caution that the numbers of rentals, and consequently the average price, in any given place is constantly changing.

Just how much those figures can change became evident after The Echo searched Airbnb multiple times earlier last week and found different results than Kootenay Business, as well as numbers that varied dramatically from day to day. In Canal Flats, for instance, just five rentals were listed on Thursday, July 28th. The next day on Friday, July 29th, with the B.C. Day long weekend just around the corner, the number of rentals available in Canal Flats shot up to 39 (with an average cost of $207 per night).

Elsewhere in Upper Columbia Valley, on July 29th, there were 138 rentals available in Radium Hot Springs (average cost of $197 per night), 135 in Panorama/Invermere (average cost of $200 per night), and 132 in Fairmont Hot Spring (average cost of $202 per night). There was considerable overlap between the different communities, with many houses in Fairmont Hot Springs and Radium Hot Springs appearing in the search results for Invermere, for instance, and vice versa.

The Airbnb website has attracted no shortage of praise and condemnation. Homeowners facing foreclosures have lauded it as an income-generating mechanism that allows them to keep their places. But critics have pointed to a host of financial, tax and legal liability issue associated with Airbnb, with the company having launched two separate lawsuits in the past month against cities (San Francisco and Anahiem) that have passed laws imposing fines on websites that list rental properties that violate city rental regulations.

The hotel and accommodation industry has also taken umbrage at Airbnb, saying it has damaged their business, and this issue in particular has leapt to the fore in the valley, with hotel and motel owners in Radium having brought their concerns to Radium council members.

Radium council sent a resolution to the Association of Kootenay and Boundary Local Governments meeting (AKBLG) trying to bring provincial attention to the matter, but before that resolution went anywhere, provincial Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Peter Fassbender send a letter to many communities in the province seeking feedback about the sharing economy (including unofficial rentals such as those facilitated by Airbnb).

“So we wrote a response to Mr. Fassbender, which will be part of the consultation, along with the letters sent by other communities, that the ministry is conducting,” Radium Hot Springs mayor Clara Reinhardt told The Echo. “We don’t want to say ‘No, you can’t do it’ (Airbnb), because there are some second homeowners and even residents here who could lose their houses without that income, but we want it to be managed and be a level playing field. It’s all about making it fair. We have a lot of accommodators here in Radium and they all collect the municipal and regional district tax (MRDT), pay business tax, pay for businesses licences, and pay for insurance. Those running Airbnb rentals are usually not paying any income tax on it, let alone paying for businesses licences. They don’t have insurance and they’re not collecting any MRDT, but yet the MRDT (which pays for the valley’s destination marketing organizations) helps them, because the destination marketing organizations help draw tourists to the valley.”

Radium council will watch to see what Mr. Fassbender decides to do, and a solution to the issue may need to also involve the federal government as well, said Reinhardt.

“Some cities or tourism towns have instituted a sort of tax on Airbnb rentals, but each of them is doing something different and we see that as a problem. We need to be consistent right across the board, so all levels of government may beed to work together on this one,” she said.

In Canal Flats, which has no official accommodation options, mayor Ute Juras indicating she’s cautiously optimistic about Airbnb bringing such options to the village, but that she’s concerned about the lack of regulation.

“I guess there now is an option, but I would still prefer to direct people to our campground,” she said.

There was no indication from the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development as to a timeline for results from its consultation on the sharing economy.

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