Posted in Features

An interview with Karen Sawatzky, the student going up against the Vancouver housing market

Airbnb could be pitting tourists against long-term residents

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Image Credits: Phoebe Lim

In the midst of a worsening housing crisis in Vancouver, one SFU student’s novel approach to figuring out the causes has blown up in the news. 

Meet Karen Sawatzky: previously a journalist and technical writer, and now a master’s student in SFU’s urban studies department.

Sawatzky described her experience at SFU as “somewhat different than the other students’ in the program”: she is a mature student, and the first person in her family to pursue post-secondary education. She recalled always being interested in housing and urban development, and as a long-time renter, the growing scarcity of rental properties in Vancouver hit close to home.

“Housing is interesting because it’s a necessity of life, but at the same time, when you live in Vancouver, you can’t help but be aware that it’s also a global trading commodity,” she said.

It was this dynamic that led her to investigate the effects of the popular rental website Airbnb in relation to the accelerated commodification of housing in Vancouver. “The question I’m asking is: what is the nature and extent of Airbnb listings in the city of Vancouver, and what are the implications of this information on Vancouver’s rental housing policy and goals?”

Sawatzky began her research by hunting for information about the number, distribution, and types of listings in Vancouver on Airbnb. Since these statistics are not readily accessible on Airbnb’s website, she had to enlist a programmer to develop a piece of software code she could use to gather the data over the course of a year.

The numbers she unearthed garnered her media attention from outlets such as The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, and Global News.

In November 2014, Sawatzky recorded 2,900 total listings in Vancouver on Airbnb. She categorized them into three groups: private rooms, entire units (apartments, houses, or condos), and shared spaces (couches or bunks). Then in December of 2015, she went back and noted 4,728 total listings. There had been a 63 percent increase in total listings in a single year.

For her, the most surprising result from her research was how fast Airbnb’s popularity was growing in Vancouver, and how a majority of the listings were entire units — properties that would traditionally be rented out long-term. She also paid special attention to where Airbnb listings were concentrated in Vancouver: the highest concentrations of listings were in tourist locales such as Downtown Vancouver, the West End, Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, and Grandview-Woodland.

“Thanks to Airbnb, competition is being set up between tourists and tenants,” Sawatzky said.

“Airbnb provides financial incentive because you can charge higher rates and make more money from short-term tourists versus long-term residents,” she explained. Additionally, when hosts list their properties on Airbnb instead of renting them to long-term residents, their tenants are no longer covered by the Residential Tenancy Act. This, according to Sawatzky, could allow hosts to evade any legal responsibilities and the rights of long-term tenants as many will opt for the ease of short term renters.

Looking at the growth rate of Airbnb throughout the course of her research, she expressed concern about the future for tenants in Vancouver. “It was a problem before Airbnb entered the scene,” she remarked, but she said she believes the company has definitely accelerated the housing crisis in Vancouver.

“Unless the city is able to get a handle on [the housing problem] through regulation, there will be fewer tenants that are able to live in Vancouver in the future,” she added.

One of Sawatzky’s main conclusions from her research is the need to urge the City of Vancouver to “stop the conversion of housing space to tourist space.”

Although she admits her research doesn’t provide quantitative data on the extensive effects of this phenomenon on property rental prices, Sawatzky proposed that “by logic, you can extrapolate that if people are able to make more money from a property [such as through Airbnb], they’re going to feel justified asking for higher prices for that property [when renting].”

Sawatzky also testified to the circulation of anecdotal reports of people buying properties just to use as Airbnb investment properties, further exacerbating the crisis.

Currently, the keen grad student is in the final stages of finishing up her thesis. When asked about her future plans, she simply laughed and responded, “I’m trying not to worry too much about that right now; I can only be stressed about so many things at once!”

She hopes to continue researching, and might combine her master’s thesis with her background in communication as she further contributes to the urban development academic scene.

  • Max

    What Ms. Sawatzky’s research doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that many of the places listed on Airbnb as “entire units” are not houses or apartments that would otherwise be in the rental pool. Many are primary residences that the owners live in, but rent out when they are away on vacation or out of town for work. These units would NOT be in the rental pool if they were removed from the Airbnb listings; they would simply not be netting extra income for the owners of these homes, who might be self-employed or otherwise in need of money to pay their mortgage or other bills. And yes, many of those owners do declare Airbnb income on their taxes.
    My concern is that an income stream will be taken away from the owners of primary residences who, like renters in Vancouver, are suffering under the financial strain of living in an expensive city like Vancouver. Many have seen their property taxes go through the roof in the past year. I am concerned that if the city acts to restrict Airbnb rentals, they won’t differentiate between speculators who are renting out apartments that would otherwise be in the rental pool and individuals who are just trying to make their expensive homes pay their own way just a bit by collecting some extra income when they are not at home.

    • Kyle MacDonald

      Totally agree. As a guy who has two “entire unit” listings that were never part of the rental pool, and likely never will be, due to the fact that one is my primary residence, and the other is an in-law suite rented part time. I know dozens of people in the city who own a condo and rent it for 1-3 weeks at a time when they travel for work. Bannning this practice is totally nuts. Many people sublet for very low prices to somebody who takes care of their pets and plants and fish, etc. Karen is grossly misrepresenting Airbnb hosts around the city.

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