Research, Graduate Students, Urban Studies

Graduate Research Profile: Karen Sawatzky, Urban Studies

October 07, 2016

Master's of Urban Studies student Karen Sawatzky’s graduate research on Airbnb and the impact on housing rental markets in Vancouver has caused quite the media buzz over the last year and a half. She came to SFU with a degree in History from the University of Victoria and wide-ranging experience working as a reporter, radio producer, legislative assistant, communications professional, and writer/editor.

Sawatzky initially studied journalism at Langara College and says her pursuit of a post-secondary degree and graduate work came later than most students. Wanting to have a “competitive edge” as a journalist, she pursued her BA in her 30s and her History honours thesis examined ideas about Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York. In 2011, Sawatzky began a certificate in editing from SFU’s Writing and Publishing program while working as a technical editor for WorkSafeBC. As a historian, journalist, and an individual interested in housing and urban issues, Sawatzky says she had the desire to further pursue research and chose SFU’s Urban Studies program in 2013 because of the program’s flexibility and interdisciplinarity. “[The Urban Studies] program was appealing as it was geared towards people in the work force. I was working as a technical editor for WorkSafeBC and most of the courses the Urban Studies program offered were held in the evenings and many of my classmates pursuing the degree were also working. The program also offered a broad range towards which you could focus your study based on your interests.”

Sawatzky says her coursework in Urban Studies exposed her to the theoretical approaches and paradigms used more in disciplines like Sociology or Political Science and the experience has been horizon-broadening. “While I was familiar with encountering primary documents and doing archival research [in History], my classes in Urban Studies exposed me to and allowed me to become accustomed to finding and working with data. My thesis on Airbnb involves quite a bit of descriptive statistics and counting things. I had to figure out how to do data scrapes for the information I needed, which was something I hadn’t done before.”

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Airbnb is a website where individuals can post listings for a private room, shared room, entire apartment, condo or house for short term rental and Sawatzky researched whether or not the listings on Airbnb could be having an impact on Vancouver’s rental housing stock. With the help of an experienced coder, Neil MacMunn (also an Urban Studies connection) she was able to scrape data from Airbnb’s listings and make some observations about short term rentals in Vancouver. As she reported in June 2015 on her blog, Short-term Consequences, her preliminary research found that in the Metro Vancouver area, 71% of all Vancouver Airbnb listings were for entire homes/apartments (including condos) while only 27% were for private rooms, and 2% were for shared rooms. While Sawatzky explains that not all listings posted for entire homes or apartments would necessarily be taking away from rental housing, she does note that the type of room being offered matters because “if a person (whether that person owns the unit or is renting it themselves) decides to dedicate an entire unit exclusively to STR [short term rental] use, that does have the potential to remove housing stock available to local residents.”

Being a long time renter in Vancouver and facing the realities of housing shortages is what initially drew Sawatzky to begin researching Airbnb’s impact. “As a renter in a city with low vacancy rates you tend to pay attention to developments that affect your ability to live in Vancouver. I started to realize the importance of [short term rentals and Airbnb] about two and a half years ago when stories about Airbnb listings suggested that these were listings that could otherwise be available in the rental housing market. This was around the same time mainstream media was reporting more positively about the impact of this kind of ‘sharing economy’ that companies like Airbnb and Uber represent.” At that time Airbnb was described as a kind of “win/win” situation, she says, a mutually beneficial arrangement for a number of parties: for consumers (looking for cheap places to stay in expensive cities), cities (wanting to make tourism accessible to a broad market), and residents (seeking to offset the high cost of home-ownership in expensive housing markets).

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The mainstream media’s interest in her research was no accident, according to Sawatzky. “In a city like Vancouver where lots of people care about housing affordability, I knew there would be a lot of interest in this kind of research. I started by talking to people in my writing and journalism circles to generate interest. Also, knowing that academic research moves at a necessarily slower pace than journalism, I created the blog, Short-term Consequences, as a sort of repository for and an offshoot of the research I was doing.” Sawatzky says an important part of navigating this was “being careful to acknowledge the limitations of the data and information.” For example, in the blog entry “Airbnb listings in Vancouver: How many? What type? Where?”  the posting that contains the bulk of data and analysis that Sawatzky has done—she provides a lengthy introduction and explanation of her project, noting it is not yet a “formal thesis,” inviting readers to bring any errors to her attention, and noting that further analysis may be required.

The level of public conversation on Airbnb has shifted since Sawatzky started research over two years ago. In cities like New York or San Francisco (where Airbnb was founded), she says, similar data scrapes and journalism have revealed that Airbnb does have an impact on urban rental housing stock. Recently, Vancouver City Council revealed that it plans to regulate short term rentals using a registration and permit system.

Where Vancouver is concerned, Sawatzky says the city is likely to be watching the outcomes of these battles in New York and San Francisco before drafting policy. “It is within [Vancouver’s] jurisdiction to implement policy that will fairly regulate short-term rentals. The city is responsible for housing policies and the field of short-term regulation is actually quite fast-moving.” While Airbnb has recently said they are willing to work with market regulation in places like Vancouver, their battles in San Francisco suggest the company may see regulation in opposition to their profitable business model. Sawatzky says the debates on regulation are heated and that the City of Vancouver is not in an easy position, being called upon to help regulate an emerging online industry that is arguably also bolstering the city’s tourism industry and providing opportunities for financially stretched homeowners to earn extra income.   

As public interest in Sawatzky’s research continues, the Urban Studies graduate received two awards in Fall 2016: the Lambda Alpha Vancouver Annual Graduate Award, and the Urban Studies Award for Community Engagement. Sawatzky says she’s committed to continuing to work in an urban-related field. “While I’m trying hard not to stress too much about what will happen after graduation, I am excited to look for work—whether doing research and writing or perhaps teaching—in an urban-related field. Ideally, I’d like to do something that allows me to utilize both sides of my professional skills: the communications and writing side and the research and analytic skills I’ve developed during my masters in Urban Studies.”