Airbnb, similar services limiting access to affordable housing in Ottawa: lobby group

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Fairbnb researcher Thorben Wieditz. Photo by David Sali.

More than 1,000 homes could be put back on Ottawa’s housing market if the city cracked down on owners who have converted their properties into “ghost hotels” on Airbnb, a new report suggests.

Fairbnb, a national coalition of about 15 organizations calling for fairer regulations on short-term rental platforms, wants the City of Ottawa to implement rules similar to those in Toronto that bar property owners from listing multiple properties on platforms such as Airbnb and require hosts to register with the city. It’s also calling on the city to ban owners from renting properties for more than 90 days a year, arguing Toronto’s limit of 180 days is “too lenient.”

The organization analyzed Airbnb’s more than 2,800 properties listed in Ottawa and found that hosts have turned more than 1,300 listings in the city into so-called “ghost hotels” ​– which it defines as those who rent their entire homes more than 90 nights a year, rent more than two entire homes or rent more than three private rooms in a home.

The report says entire homes make up 1,054 of those listings, with nearly 300 other property owners turning at least part of their dwellings into commercial tourist lodgings. It pointed out that one host in Ottawa, identified on the platform as “Genevieve,” lists 76 entire homes for rent on Airbnb.

In a report called “Addressing Ottawa’s Housing Crisis” released Tuesday at City Hall, Fairbnb says the capital is “suffering from a ‘suffocating’ housing market,” with its rental vacancy rate of 1.6 per cent putting affordable housing out of reach for many residents.

Meanwhile, it says, a growing number of long-term rental units are being taken off the market and converted into guest lodgings for tourists.

“Not unlike other cities across Canada, Ottawa is becoming increasingly less affordable for low- and modest-income households,” the report says. “At the same time, there are almost 3,000 properties that are routinely advertised on platforms like Airbnb to accommodate tourists and guests.”

The report says a 90-night-a-year cap – which has been adopted in cities such as San Francisco, Washington, London and Berlin – would “stop property owners and short-term rental entrepreneurs from using scarce housing stock as fodder for Airbnb’s ghost hotel inventory.”

City staff are now studying the short-term rental issue with the aim of presenting a report on proposed regulations to council before the end of the year. Toronto’s rules are currently under appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.

Fairbnb says in popular areas such as Centretown, Airbnb hosts can make more money on the platform in the summer than they could in an entire year as a landlord to long-term renters, adding “it has simply become too profitable to use homes as hotel stock.”

"Some of the saturation of commercial Airbnbs in Ottawa is higher than we’ve seen anywhere else in Canada.”

The report singles out two wards – Somerset and Rideau-Vanier – where it says the problem is particularly acute. It says in both wards, “commercial” Airbnb hosts – those who it says have converted their properties into tourist accommodations and aren’t likely to rent to long-term tenants – generate more than 80 per cent of the platform’s total revenue.

Fairbnb researcher Thorben Wieditz said the commercialization of Airbnb in those wards is even higher than in Toronto’s waterfront area, which it previously called the “epicentre” of Ontario’s Airbnb activity.

“We were struck by the fact that some of the saturation of commercial Airbnbs in Ottawa is higher than we’ve seen anywhere else in Canada,” he told reporters.

Airbnb spokesperson Alex Dagg disputed the accuracy of the group's findings.

"This report is based on faulty assumptions and poor research, and is yet another example of a hotel-funded front group villainizing Ottawa families so hotels can continue to protect their ability to price gouge consumers," she said in a statement, adding the platform "helps provide much-needed alternatives for accommodation to the many students and business travellers in Ottawa."

The data in Fairbnb's report came from Inside Airbnb, a project run by New York City researcher Murray Cox that bills itself as an “independent, non-commercial, open source data tool.”

Councillors, local hospitality industry support findings

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney says she backs the report’s call for a 90-day limit on short-term rentals, adding she’s hearing from more and more long-term tenants who are being forced out of units that have been converted into tourist accommodations.

“In the City of Ottawa, we have an affordable housing crisis,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to rent long-term right now in the downtown, certainly anything that’s even remotely affordable. And what (Airbnb) is doing is putting added pressure daily on those numbers.”

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury said running what amounts to hotels in residential neighbourhoods has financial implications for the city, saying it costs taxpayers about $300 every time a bylaw officer has to respond to a noise or a garbage complaint.

“We know when the next garbage day is, but a short-term renter might not,” he said. “They leave that unit, but the impacts are felt by the community.”

Fleury refused to say whether he supports a 90-day limit on short-term rentals, adding he wants to give the city a chance to review the data and consult with the community.

“Right now, there’s nothing that stops (property owners) from commercializing those units, and that’s the challenge,” he told reporters.

 

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Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association president Steve Ball. File photo.

Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association president Steve Ball, whose group is part of Fairbnb, said the report shed further light on the extent of Airbnb’s penetration into the downtown rental market.

“It helped to qualify the magnitude in which the ByWard Market area and Centretown is being invested in by people who want to run ghost hotels,” he said.

Dagg recently told OBJ she questioned the hotel industry’s motivation for being involved in the organization.

“When has the hotel industry ever been concerned about the rental market and housing?” she said, adding Airbnb has "always advocated for fair, sensible" home-sharing regulations. “This is about being able to restrict their competition. It’s about protecting their room rate, protecting their revenues.”

Ball said his complaints about Airbnb and the like have nothing to do with stifling legitimate competition.

“This community is important to me, and housing affordability is important to me,” he said, adding he hopes to be able to live downtown once he retires. “It’s more than just my job. It’s very much about living in a community that I can afford to live in and afford to appreciate.”