The number of suites available for rent in Vancouver could increase by almost 50 per cent if all AirBnb units that are rented out for more than three months a year were converted into rental housing, estimates show.

But there’s an alternative: making all homes identified in a city report as “empty” available could more than quadruple what’s available.

Both of those factors are contributing to the hollowing out of Vancouver’s rental supply – and are both being targeted by city council as they try to provide more places for Vancouverites to rent, and to rein in rapidly escalating prices.

“I walk around the area, I don’t see a lot of vacancy signs,” said West End renter Diana Carnegie. Carnegie says she is worried she won’t be able to afford her current suite when she goes on a pension, and doesn’t see anywhere local to downsize to.

“This is my community. I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to stay - it seems terribly unfair to me,” Carnegie said.

Vancouver’s rental vacancy rate is an abysmal 0.6 per cent – lower than Metro Vancouver, which is about 0.8 per cent. Toronto’s rate stands at 1.6 per cent, and Montreal’s is at 4.2 per cent.

In a survey released by Angus Reid, 62 per cent of respondents said Vancouver’s availability was “really bad” – and not a single respondent replied that it was “very good.”

The city of Vancouver is trying to tackle the problem, said city councilor Geoff Meggs, pointing to its attempts to increase the number of laneway homes, its pressure on the province to allow a vacancy tax on empty homes, and a consultation process on short-term rental suites.

“The change in recent years has been quite dramatic and [Vancouverites] want us to deal with empty homes, which might be a big factor,” Meggs added.

The City has estimated that the number of suites available for rent in Vancouver in purpose-built rental accommodation is as low as 337 – a figure arrived at by multiplying the 0.6 per cent vacancy rate by the number of units in purpose-built rental housing.

But that doesn’t account for thousands of entire homes, condos, basement suites, and other types of accommodations that are offered in the city.

CTV News examined the number of suites available for rent in the city of Vancouver on Craigslist, a popular rental listing site. 

There were about 2,500 units mapped within the boundaries of the City of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia as of Aug. 1.

Some were advertised in a way that underscores the rental crisis the city is currently facing: one Dunbar suite called itself a “LUXURY/EXECUTIVE 2 BEDROOM BASEMENT SUITE.” The price: $1,600/month.

CTV News eliminated from the count many postings that appeared to be cries for help from renters for accommodation, including one entitled “This is Absolute Madness.” 

“The rental market is in the worst possible condition it’s ever been in,” the poster wrote, calling the rents asked for on the site “blasphemy.” “Students and low-middle income individuals have absolutely no options right now, with insane amounts of competition.”

“We need to demand change here, otherwise this will just get worse,” the poster continued, signing the article “The People.”

When looking for reasons why rental accommodation is so hard to find, some point the finger at AirBnb, which allows an owner to charge a premium renting nightly to tourists, instead of monthly to locals. AirBnb listings have doubled each year since 2013, according to the city report.

In a response to City of Vancouver inquiries, AirBnb provided a report which said there were 6,400 listings that hosted at least one short-term rental in 2015. That includes private rooms, shared rooms, and entire suites, rented for all durations.

Not all of those could reasonably be converted to rental accommodation. Of those, 4,400 are entire suites on AirBnb, but some could still be primary residences rented out only occasionally, when occupants are on holiday, for example.

But the report says 26 per cent of those entire suites were rented nightly for at least three months – a lengthy period that may capture some extended vacations, but is more likely to capture a commercial operation.

That number – 1,144 – is about 45 per cent of the stock available on Craigslist today.

The City of Vancouver is now consulting citizens on what rules they are looking to enforce on short-term rentals, with some options in the survey including restricting such short-term rentals to three months or less.

The number of empty homes was tallied by another effort by the city of Vancouver: 10,800, about 90 per cent of which were condos. That’s 4.3 times the number of suites available on Craigslist today.

The City of Vancouver was granted powers to tax empty homes by the province in an emergency session of the legislature last week. City officials have said its ability will depend on whether the province will share data on those homes.

If all of the eligible AirBnb homes and empty homes could be up for rent, would-be renters would see the number of listings increase by 4.8 times – almost quintupling.

That may help, said West End renter Jonathan Milne. But he said the problem may simply be supply and demand.

“Many people want to live here and there aren’t enough places for all the people who want to live here,” he said.