Vancouver couple’s ‘illegal’ suite shuts down Airbnb listing
Owner Daniel Piecuch: “We inherited it. But it’s a very safe house’
When Daniel Piecuch and Sheena Graham bought an old house in East Vancouver in 2019, little did they know the fully functional basement with a kitchen built 40 years ago was completed without a permit.
In other words, it was illegal.
The couple were also unaware that two of their bridges had been built without a permit.
They found out the hard way after a September 2021 visit by a city inspector who targeted the 114-year-old home on East 19th Avenue for operating an illegal short-term rental in the basement.
The inspector’s findings triggered the suspension of the couple’s short-term rental business license – a decision that was upheld on Tuesday by three councilors who made up the business license review panel.
“We pushed and we saved and we made it possible for us to own this house,” Piecuch told the panel during the hearing. “The unfortunate nature that we find ourselves in – as you can see – is that we are now unfortunately visible to the city in many ways.”
Under the city’s short-term rental regulations, a landlord cannot rent an illegal suite through a platform such as Airbnb. The same goes for the long-term rental market, although the city’s attorney Iain Dixon acknowledged that many illegal suites operate in Vancouver.
“We are not actively seeking such aftermaths, but once they come to our attention, city staff have an obligation to enforce the bylaws as they exist,” Dixon said.
“It’s a long-term difficulty that we have with these ‘illegal suites’. But from a staff perspective, when they come to our attention, it’s not a gray area, it’s just an illegal housing unit.
“Thousands of Records”
The city does not inspect every property whose owners obtain a business license for short-term rental. An inspection is triggered either by a complaint, a random audit or a search by staff on suspected illegal operations.
Koji MiyajiThe city’s deputy chief licensing inspector said he couldn’t say for sure what triggered the inspection of the couple’s home, noting that his department has ‘thousands of records’ that are being reviewed .
“My understanding is [staff] saw the messages from the basement [on Airbnb]but your property license was for the ground floor and the second floor – the main house,” he said. Piecuch during the hearing. “So there may have been a trigger, but I can’t say exactly what made them do this.”
The town’s concern is that the sequel may be dangerous. Only a proper examination by city inspectors with expertise in electrical work, plumbing and construction would be able to determine the safety of the suite, which is believed to have been built 40 years ago.
The couple, who have a young daughter, said the decision to start renting the suite on Airbnb was to help them financially after Sheena lost her job. It also served as a space for relatives to visit, eliminating the need for them to rent hotel rooms, which happened when the couple lived in a condo in Mount Pleasant.
The suite, which connects to the upper floor via a staircase, was an attractive element in the couple’s decision to buy the house. The couple had the home inspected but did not check with the city if the suite was considered illegal.
It was an “aware buyer” point Miyaji made at the hearing, saying his department would strongly recommend that potential buyers check the property listing information to make sure it is correct.
City information on the couple’s home file shows an unfinished basement and no deck. This information is available to the public and to real estate agents, Miyaji said.
“These steps are what we recommend to avoid any misunderstandings when individuals are buying a home,” he said.
That much, Piecuch interrogates Miyaji on how long it would take to get that information, noting how competitive Vancouver’s real estate market is for buyers. Miyaji didn’t answer the question directly except to say it was easy to get.
“It will cost money to make”
Dixon acknowledged that potential buyers move quickly in the Vancouver real estate market so they don’t lose a home.
“Unfortunately, people get caught up in these kinds of situations where they are unaware of the illegal work being done without a permit in their homes,” he said. “It can be brought into compliance, but it will cost money to do so.”
It was not made clear during the hearing whether the couple’s bridges should be removed.
Although the panel unanimously agreed to suspend the couple’s license, each councilor noted the city’s willingness to work with Piecuch and Graham to rectify violations, with the option of reapplying for a short-term rental license.
“We are certainly aware of the stress around housing and real estate in Vancouver and the complexity of some of these permit issues,” said Com. Christine Boyle, who presided over the hearing.
“It’s not isolated to this incident…I think we’re all absolutely sensitive to these challenges and keen to find the appropriate avenues of support that make things easier.”
In his closing remarks, Piecuch said he and his wife have shown a willingness to work with the city to work out the next steps to make their suite legal, with no long-term tenant plans.
“We’re doing our best to figure it all out ourselves and learning a lot,” he said, noting it could take months or even years to sort out. “It will not be something that will be rectified in a week or two. It is unfortunately nature [of the situation] in which we are. We inherited it. But it is a very safe house.
As of February 3, 2022, the city’s website said there were 2,501 active short-term rental listings in Vancouver. Since implementing the short-term rental bylaw in 2018, the city has suspended 880 business licenses and referred 177 cases for prosecution.