The envelope said “Important Information Enclosed.” Not unusual for sweepstakes draws. But this was different. It was from the BC Assessment office, and a month earlier than Mig usually heard from this bureaucratic automaton. Mig wondered what was inside, but was sure it wasn’t good, having received a similar missive the year before. Sure enough, she found a carefully worded warning that her property value was shooting up an absurd 43 per cent in 2023, something rich investors might welcome but homeowners like Mig, already barely scraping by, could do without. Because it meant her property taxes were going up. Again.
And by a lot. Again.
Indeed, it was the second year in a row, a bona fide financial shock—like when you drop your savings to get your 10-year-old twins into ski racing, then the next year find out both need extensive orthodontic work and you have no insurance. Mig wondered how she could continue living in Whistler. She’d been happy in her modest, 1,300-sq.-ft. townhome for more than 20 years, putting the already hefty tax bill on a line of credit each year and paying it off slowly. She knew she was privileged to live here, but now the shit was hitting the fan.
Mig bought her townhome for $339,000 in September 1999. At the time a fully furnished, fully equipped, short-term rental owned by an absentee landlord in Washington state, it seemed a good deal. It proved a sound investment, its value doubling over the next decade; taxes increased in kind, too, but the timespan over which this occurred was reasonable and justified given the value one gets for their tax dollars in Whistler. Plus, Mig liked where she lived. Most of the units were owned by weekenders, so for the first few years she was the only one who lived there full-time.
After the 2010 Olympics, things changed, as some owners gave over their units to the market thirst for long-term rentals while others sold to folks looking for an investment to do the same. It didn’t work out well for many landlords, as seasonal renters did a number on properties; there were bedbug infestations, and even a sublet scam next door to Mig where a couple renting for $2,000/month put bunks into every room and rented the entirety for more than $9,000/month. Eventually things settled again, all the while property values creeping slowly up, as they do, with the silent metronome of time.
Then came some weird wobbles, enough to catch Mig’s attention. The small tax increases she was used to became larger and more unwieldy. More places were up for sale. A few were clearly flipped. Then came the pandemic, and all hell broke loose—heralded by back-to-back “Important Information Enclosed” letters from BC Assessment.
Her property was assessed at $1,294,000 in July 2021, but leapt to $1,811,000 in 2022, a 40-per-cent increase, then $2,592,000 in 2023, a 43-per-cent jump over the previous year—while the average increase in the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) was just 13 per cent. Mig did the math: this was an astounding rise of just over 100 per cent from the 2021 value—which explains why her taxes literally doubled in two years and she found herself staring down an almost $7K bill. Nothing having been done to the property, the only conceivable metric to this inflation must lay in some kind of disruption.
And that disruption is Airbnb.
When Airbnb took off in the early-mid 2010s, it was followed by crazy renovating to be able to charge more and increase capacity. When house prices rose, owners no longer married to their weekend getaway logically began selling; but buyers were now largely those seeking investments that could capitalize on Airbnb—including those with little intention of using the place themselves—like numbered companies.
Since BC Assessment doesn’t consider renos (a serious shortcoming), everyone in Mig’s strata suffered the same property-value-tax jumps two years running on valuations that in no way reflect the worth of an as-is unit—which, as tested on the open market, is about two-thirds of the BC Assessment valuation.
A newly overhauled unit in Mig’s development sold for $3,195,000 in February 2022 (2021 assessed value: $1,917,000); another previously reno’d unit sold for $3,027,000 in April 2022 (2021 assessed value: $1,984,000); these are million-dollar-plus differences—i.e., 53-per-cent and 66-per-cent price increases, respectively—in less than a year. Nearby comparable properties shown on the BC Assessment website didn’t vary remotely as wildly between selling price and assessment (e.g., $1,999,900 versus $1,632,000; $1,180,000 versus $880,900; $1,270,000 versus $1,067,000) or ~20 to 34-per-cent value/price increases.
Now we have people like Mig caught in a stampeding housing crisis courtesy of the pandemic, supply chains, and Airbnb and its competitors. With more than 6 million listings in 100,000 cities globally, Airbnb “hosts” (a hilariously inappropriate moniker) are making bank. According to watchdog group Inside Airbnb (excellent pun), short-term rental investments explain 2020’s 44-per-cent surge in vacation home sales. But it isn’t just individuals buying in: real-estate investment firms (like Mig’s numbered neighbours) gobble up as much Airbnb-able property as possible—fully a quarter of hosts on the platform own nearly two-thirds of listings.
With the aim of reducing Airbnbs by at least 10,000, New York City instituted a new measure that requires hosts to register their property and provide proof of residence or risk fines of $1,000 to $5,000. Restrictions, of course, don’t always work and are hard to enforce. But something has to break to rein in short-term rentals.
The B.C. government’s new rules around these establish a new provincial regulatory role that will provide stronger tools to local governments like the RMOW to enforce short-term rental bylaws that should return units to the long-term market. Among the measures: principal resident status (from which Whistler is exempt), much higher fines (up to $50K) and displaying business licenses on listings (for liability reasons, stratas might have to get into the game of requiring license registration as well).
Will any of this help? Mig’s not holding her breath, but knows she can’t handle too many more “Important Information Enclosed” greetings.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn’t like