Vancouver City Hall continued its march into the bedrooms of the city yesterday when it announced an onerous regulation and tax regime to snuff out Airbnb and other short-term room/house rental companies.
This is, at least, the fourth time in the past year that Vancouver, led by Mayor Gregor Robertson, has passed laws or taxes that significantly erode the freedom of its residents to use their personal property the way they see fit.
Last fall, Robertson and his council voted to keep Uber and other ride-sharing companies out of the city. This was done mainly to protect the taxi industry which, coincidentally, donated $53,000 to Robertson's Vision Vancouver party in the last election campaign.
Having damaged his residents' ability to move around the city, Robertson's council then passed an energy plan that will ban natural gas use within city limits by 2050. This dooms future residents to higher utility costs -- as much as $1,400 per year -- as they are forced to switch to far more expensive energy sources.
And earlier this month, Robertson unveiled a vacant home tax, threatening property owners with tens of thousands of dollars of new taxes if they don't rent out empty homes and condos. To help enforce it, he's hiring a whole new city department and encouraging neighbours to call a city snitch line.
Now, it's an attack on Airbnb and a knockout blow to the sharing economy in Vancouver.
The sharing economy isn't some marketing buzzword, focus-tested by cynical political operatives to try and win votes. It's a legitimate cultural shift, led in large part by the millennial generation, to more organic, people-driven innovation centered around mutual benefit. You have an extra room and need a few dollars to cover your mortgage? I need a place to stay and am willing to pay you. Why shouldn't we be connected through a smartphone app so we can help one another out?
With this policy, he is prioritizing renters over owners.
Robertson argues that Airbnb is making life more difficult for renters in Vancouver. But his solution takes much-needed income out of the pockets of homeowners struggling to get by in a city noted for its high cost of living and worrisome levels of personal debt. With this policy, he is prioritizing renters over owners. When public policy intervenes in private business, there are always winners and losers.
It will also make it more difficult for those young renters to eventually buy homes in Vancouver. After all, every extra dollar helps, and for many first-time buyers, a couple nights a month of Airbnb income goes a long way to covering some of their bills.
Roughly three per cent of home owners in Vancouver rented out space through the app last year. Only 0.1 per cent of all homes in Vancouver were rented out long enough through Airbnb to generate more money than a full-time, traditional renter would pay.
Government should keep its sticky hands off of the sharing economy.
This continues the erosion of personal property rights in the city. While property rights are not listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada has a long tradition of allowing people to do what they want with their personal property.
Robertson's vacancy and Airbnb taxes are a significant stumble down a slippery slope. What's next for this mayor? If these new taxes don't raise the vacancy rate high enough, will he go after unoccupied suites in homes and tax people if they don't rent them out? Or empty bedrooms? If private housing is now a social good, with its use essentially controlled by the government through tax and regulation, what's to stop these next steps?
The sharing economy grew up outside the tentacles of government, a testament to the millennial generation's different view of the world. It has spread to other generations, embraced as a way to help people cover housing costs and help others see the world affordably.
Government should keep its sticky hands off of the sharing economy -- and away from the private homes and bedrooms of its taxpayers.
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