Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Student Profile: Karen Sawatzky

July 13, 2015
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Photo: Katelyn McDougall, Urban Studies

The number of rental properties available in Vancouver is at a critical low, with many residents struggling to find a decent, affordable unit. Master of Urban Studies student Karen Sawatzky, a long time renter herself, couldn’t help but wonder whether a more recent addition to the housing scene could be having an effect on the rental supply.

Karen set out to investigate whether Airbnb, a website where homeowners can list a shared or private room, or even an entire house for short term rental, could be taking housing away from Vancouverites. Property owners can often garner much higher rates for their properties through short-term rentals than through conventional long term leases, potentially resulting in tourists taking up housing that could be used for residents of the city.

With the help of an Urban Studies connection, Neil MacMunn, who is proficient with coding, Karen dug through Airbnb’s extensive data in order to shed light on the website’s effects on Vancouver's rental housing market for her ongoing thesis research. Of the 3,473 listings she found in the City of Vancouver on June 1, 2015, 71% of those were for entire houses, apartments, or condos.

This data lends weight to the idea that there could be thousands of properties that Vancouver renters do not have access to, worsening the already critically low rental vacancy rate. Perhaps even more astoundingly, 14% of those with listings on Airbnb had more than one listing, pointing to the possibility that some may be purchasing properties specifically to rent out on a short term basis, rather than renting out only their own homes when they are away.

Karen’s research has attracted attention from several news outlets, with features in the Vancouver Sun, Global News, Georgia Straight, Globe and Mail, Metro News, and on the personal blog of Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs to name a few.

Local legislation already exists forbidding the rental of properties for less than a month without a hotel or bed and breakfast license. Although that bylaw is rarely enforced, in legal terms as Karen understands it, “all Airbnb listings in Vancouver, except those listed by licensed bed-and-breakfasts operators and hotels, are in contravention of the bylaw”.  The city has recently started investigating the issue of short-term rentals and Karen hopes her data and research will have an influence on that process.

Karen reiterates that it is not everyone who lists properties on Airbnb who are the issue, but rather those who choose to dedicate properties exclusively to short-term rentals. The housing shortage in Vancouver is undeniable. Karen adds, based on “the severity of the city’s housing shortages, I believe a more proactive approach by the city to this issue is justified.”

For the time being this approach remains to be seen, but Karen’s research is being called “major evidence” of the need for regulation by City Councillor Geoff Meggs. 

Karen wishes to extend her thanks to SFU for their part in supporting her research. "Housing availability and affordability issues are of intense, ongoing public concern in Metro Vancouver, so I think the fact that SFU is home to this type of graduate research really fits with its goal of being a leading community-engaged university,” she says. She would like to specifically thank the Urban Studies Department for their support as she developed her project and began her research as well as to the Library and the Office of Research Ethics for its help and approachability. 

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