Vancouver grapples with a highly complex housing crisis and an exodus of long time locals to the ‘burbs. New Westminster, however, enjoys the problem of not having enough short term accommodation to house a growing number of people travelling through and spending money in our town. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people come to our city every year with money to spend. And if you live and work in New West, you should be concerned about where they stay. Here is my story and an oddball suggestion for how to “fix” New Westminster’s accommodation problem.
My husband and I bought the cheapest house in New Westminster on May 3rd, 2012. On May 20th, we opened our first restaurant, and ten days after that, our daughter was born.
Some say we could have planned better. I agree.
We have spent the past four years madly working to secure our footing in a storm fuelled by changing economies, demographics, the environment and culture. In 2016 the storm rages on, and we are holding steady, perched beside the Gas Works in what remains the cheapest house in New Westminster.
Michael (that’s my husband) and I often sit out on our deck and look into the city, chatting about the locals and passers by. How did they get here? What are they doing and how long will they stay? What makes people spend money in a particular way? And most importantly, how can our little business be a part of the whole mechanism? How can we harness some of this energy? How can we use it to stabilize our business and our existence in New West?
We found the answer through Airbnb, and not in the way you would think.
Yes, we participate in the sharing economy and rent a 300 sq ft suite on the ground level of our house. This affords me the “luxury” of working full time for our restaurant with no paycheque, and in a nutshell, braces our restaurant against the stormy business cycle.
More interesting and relevant; however, is what we see from our perch on the Brow of the Hill and down the street at the Quay. As hosts, we see who comes to stay in New West, who remains, who leaves. And as business owners, we see how they spend their hard earned dollars.
We get to interact with our guests and our customers in a personal way. Many in both categories are our neighbours and peers. We chat with our house guests about why they are here, where they go and what they think. We commiserate with fellow New West restaurant owners about the business cycle, people’s purchasing habits. Our neighbours and friends are always eager to relay their observations and advice.
Ok ok, I’ll get to the point. Here’s what we see:
When we started our Airbnb, we didn’t imagine that any traveller would want to stay in New Westminster, but lo and behold, we have been at 95-100% occupancy every month for three years. Why are we so busy, and who on earth is staying with us?
Newly minted grandparents stay with us after their kids (living in two bedroom condos) have their first child. The grandparents are kicked to the curb, and no one wants to couch-surf for a month in a small home with a newborn.
Immigrants will stay with us for a month or so just after arriving in Canada for the first time. They need to get cell phones, bank accounts and paperwork before they can begin apartment hunting. Many love New Westminster so much that they stay here, renting an apartment in Uptown or Quayside.
Students interviewing at Boucher Institute, sitting exams at the Justice Institute, teachers doing professional development at Douglas College and WCCMT are all our guests.
Families of four with a dog will stay with us while visiting relatives for a weekend.
People attending weddings at La Perla Ballroom or Centennial Hall just love that our home is nearby.
And, when there is a conference at the new Anvil Centre and a big event at the Massey Theatre, the only hotel in town books up instantly. Most of the incoming people have to look elsewhere for lodging. New Westminster’s Airbnb hosts make room.
Why is this important?
The cost of living in the Lower Mainland is high and the cost of raising children here is so high. Most people feel like they don’t have a lot of disposable income to throw around purchasing “affordable luxuries” like produce at the Farmers Market, locally made gifts for friends, well prepared food and more.
I want more people to eat at our restaurant and not balk at the high price of food. That said, I too need to be conservative with my money to make ends meet at home. So, I can’t blame anyone who chooses to hold onto their cash instead of spend it dining out. Travellers too face tight budgets.
This is where Airbnb fits in. The guests we see are finding extra value by staying with us. Maybe they would never have been able to afford two hotel rooms for their family, and not have taken the trip in the first place. Our guests get free parking and laundry access which helps to make a big trip more affordable.
There is a human element. We love the interaction hosting brings to our lives, and guests really pick up on that too. We will all share a tea or glass of wine on the back deck. Sometimes we make dinner together. I send our guests to experience Steel and Oak Brewing Co., Old Crow Coffee, for a walk down the river, and to Brick and Mortar Living for souvenirs.
Additionally, with a bit of extra effort on my part, I find a few dollars left in my pocket at the end of the month. Finally, my family can have a lovely dinner at El Santo Restaurant or Michael and I can get a babysitter and catch a show nearby.
Now do you see it?
There is a cyclone of local dollars whipping around our city, precipitated by the Airbnb platform. Travellers are brought to New Westminster thanks to the Anvil Centre, Royal Columbian Hospital, all the colleges and institutions, the Massey Theatre and more. Some even come just as tourists, surprised and delighted when they discover New West! Travellers are connected online to us locals with only 1 degree of separation.
Airbnb takes money directly from these travellers and puts it right into the hands of residents. People on both sides of this transaction feel a little more flush. They spend the twenty dollars left in their wallet at the end of the week on something nice. So often that nice thing is locally produced. We know, and our restaurant thanks you.
The Anvil Centre and other local projects have brought loads of people to our city, and I believe it is imperative that New Westminster finds a way to keep these trade and tourism dollars within the city limits. For Michael and I, it’s easier to swallow an Anvil Centre induced property tax increase knowing that we will see a resulting increase in business at our restaurant.
They say New Westminster is “built out,” and I can’t imagine there is a lot of space to put up more hotel rooms. So, how do we stop all of these travellers coming into our city from staying in Burnaby or Coquitlam and spending their hard earned money elsewhere?
I think we could actually embrace this storm of local dollars that is raining on our city and let it prop up the businesses, organizations and individuals that make our city great.