Squamish council debates how to keep new units from becoming vacation rentals

Some fee exemptions for secondary suites may continue in order to encourage long-term rentals

In order to spur the growth of more rental housing, council is considering extending fee exemptions or reductions for owners of existing buildings who want to add in secondary suites.

Faced with an increasingly short supply of housing, the District of Squamish started waiving fees in 2016 for homeowners who wanted to install secondary suites in hopes of creating more supply.

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Homeowners who wanted to add in a renter, said Jonas Velaniskis, director of planning, at least anecdotally, have greeted this approach, warmly.

Since its implementation three years ago, there've been 194 new secondary suites installed and 48 new carriage homes built.

Some of the perks of that program are expiring, so staff brought it up for possible renewal.

Councillors said on their Feb. 26 meeting they'd consider continuing to waive development cost charges for owners of existing buildings who want to install secondary suites or put in carriage homes.

They said they'd also consider reducing building permit fees in these cases as well.

One key point of debate, however, was whether these new suites or carriage homes would actually help the rental market, or be put up on short term rentals, such as Airbnb, instead.

"If they all just keep going in the Airbnb market, I don't want to keep paying for that," said Mayor Karen Elliott.

Coun. Doug Race wondered if there was any correlation between the new suites built under the exemption program and new short-term rentals.

Race also floated the idea of, in the future, collecting the previously exempted fees if homeowners immediately put their suites on Airbnb.

"Have we looked at anything like that to just ensure that the ones we're exempting actually end up in rental stock?" he said.

Velaniskis replied there is some correlation between suites built under the exemption program and Airbnb.

He added it would be possible for staff to look into trying such an enforcement system. It would require additional staff resources though, he noted.

General manager Gary Buxton, however, said it's unclear if the municipality could do that with development cost charge exemptions.

"Getting the money back will be tricky," he said.

Coun. Chris Pettingill said there could be a problem if council incentivizes building secondary suites, then later takes away the ability to put them on Airbnb.

Many homeowners may build those suites under the presumption they could put them on short term rentals, he said.

Pettingill said it should be immediately clear that council expects them to be long-term rentals, so there's no surprise down the road.

"If we're going to offer incentives right up front, somehow make them contingent on some kind of long-term rental commitment," he said.

He also suggested guaranteeing a faster timeline in the application process may even be more valuable than waiving fees.

Staff also wondered if council would be in favour of extending fee exemptions or reductions on secondary suites in new developments that have yet to be built.

Councillors were cold to that idea.

They said they wanted to subsidize homeowners rather than developers.

Nothing is final yet. Staff will bring back the project to council at a future date.

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