Ottawa hotels lobby for licensing of Airbnb landlords

With the number of Airbnb rentals in Ottawa proliferating, the city’s hoteliers association says it’s increasing pressure on government officials to introduce licensing requirements for the short-term rental of private residences.

Airbnb, which allows homeowners to rent out a room, condo or house to guests by the night, has long been a cause for concern for Ottawa hotels who fear they can be undercut by private individuals who don’t pay commercial taxes.

The Ottawa-Gatineau Hotel Association says it’s escalating its push for a “level playing field” with the online platform. The organization’s president, Steve Ball, said he met with provincial Ministry of Finance officials last month and plans to make a formal written submission to the City of Ottawa in the coming weeks.

“There should be a registration process (for landlords), who should be required to obtain a licence to run a short-term rental,” he told OBJ. Mr. Ball said licensing requirements – which he suspected would fall on municipalities to enforce – could include complying with city zoning bylaws, minimum health and safety standards and tax rules.

He’d also like to see Airbnb only post ads from licensed landlords.

The city does not currently license or regulate the zoning of Airbnb or its units, said Roger Chapman, the city’s chief of bylaw and regulatory services, in a statement. He added that the city is not contemplating either form of regulation in the near future.

A Ministry of Finance spokesperson said the province has established a Sharing Economy Advisory Committee that’s consulting with the public and affected industries. The spokesperson said the province is trying to strike a balance in developing the right regulatory and tax environment, and pointed to a pilot project aimed at educating Ontario residents who engage in home-sharing about their rights and responsibilities.

In a statement, Airbnb said it's participating in the province's advisory committee and that it's keeping an open mind to new regulations.

"We will continue to work on behalf of our host community to help ensure that there are fair, easy-to-follow rules for home sharing," said spokesperson Alexandra Dagg. "Our experience with governments around the world ... makes us confident that we can develop fair solutions that address Ontario’s public policy goals.”

Other jurisdictions across the country are also grappling with the issue.

In late September, Vancouver's mayor said he wanted to ban Airbnb rentals for those who aren't living in the homes they are listing and require everyone else to hold a business licence.

Meanwhile, the Quebec government amended its tourist accommodation law in April that requires anyone advertising a rental accommodation for tourists for no more than 31 days on a “regular basis” to obtain a $250 permit, have at least $2 million of insurance and pay a nightly hotel tax.

However, fewer than 500 permits have been issued across the province as of mid-September, according to the province's Tourism Department. That represents a fraction of the more than 10,000 units listed on websites like Airbnb, HomeAway and Kijiji.

Mr. Ball suggested that individuals who occasionally rent out extra space in their homes should be able to meet any future requirements. Instead, he’s hoping new measures crack down on individuals who own multiple properties that are used primarily for short-term rentals.

“It’s an underground economy” that’s untaxed and unregulated, Mr. Ball said.

While Airbnb’s website shows some 300 Ottawa properties available for rent on any given date, Mr. Ball estimates that there are approximately 1,500 Airbnb hosts in Ottawa-Gatineau.

To put that figure in context, that’s the equivalent of slightly more than 15 per cent of the 9,600 hotel rooms in the National Capital Region.

While it’s difficult to quantify the impact of Airbnb on hotels in Ottawa, Mr. Ball said the platform is affecting businesses across the city differently.

Large, full-service downtown hotels that attract a large proportion of corporate travellers are not being hit as hard, he said. However, smaller properties outside central Ottawa are more likely to be competing against Airbnb hosts, Mr. Ball added.

He said he fears that Airbnb’s growth, left unregulated, could discourage future investment in new hotels.

-With reports by the Canadian Press