The city took one step closer to tightening its regulation of short-term rentals on Friday following a marathon committee meeting at City Hall.
Ottawa’s community and protective services committee heard from more than 60 delegates on proposals from city staff that, if implemented, would see hosts on home-sharing platforms such as Airbnb restricted to offering short-term rentals only in properties considered their primary residences. The regulations would also restrict corporations from operating short-term rentals and would introduce a permit system that could see operators lose their ability to rent out units based on poor behaviour.
The 10-hour-plus meeting saw concerned residents and business owners turn out in droves in an attempt to influence yays and nays from the committee, which had eight councillors in attendance. The staff recommendations on short-term rentals were ultimately approved 5-3; a separate motion to regulate long-term rentals through provisions such as landlord licensing passed unanimously.
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At issue with the regulation of short-term suites is the concept of “ghost hotels” – entire residences rented out without a host living on-site. Some councillors and concerned residents at the meeting noted instances of violence at such properties rented on Airbnb, while others posited that the city’s affordable housing supply would benefit from returning these units to the rental market.
Other attendees argued in favour of operating and managing these units as legitimate businesses.
Genevieve Walton, the founder of professional Airbnb property manager Short & Suite BNB, told the meeting she was concerned she’d have to downsize her 30-person company if the city’s regulations came into effect. Scott Clement, co-owner of breathebnb Vacation Rental Management, told OBJ recently that the city’s proposal would “ruin” his 40-person firm’s ambitious growth plans.
Airbnb pushed back on proposals
Much of Friday’s meeting had Alex Dagg, public policy manager for Airbnb Canada, in the hot seat as she argued against city staff’s proposals. While she supported the idea of setting up a permit system to register local hosts, she said the principal residence requirement is “too restrictive” and would have a detrimental effect on Ottawa’s tourism industry.
Dagg noted that the 4,600 units listed locally on Airbnb yielded $36 million in revenues in the past 12 months. Over the course of the Canada Day weekend in 2017, when hordes of tourists flocked to the capital for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations, Dagg said some 6,000 guests stayed in Airbnb properties and brought in $1.1 million for hosts.
On the Canada 150 celebrations, Dagg looked to contrast the costs and rigidity of Ottawa’s traditional hotel industry with the flexibility of Airbnb.
“Airbnb hosts made it possible for people who would otherwise not have been able to find affordable accommodations in Ottawa to participate in this national celebration,” she said. The average rate for a unit on Airbnb over the July 1st weekend in 2017 was $93, which compares with an average rate of $153 per room at Ottawa-Gatineau hotels in the first quarter of that year.
Dagg also disagreed with the assertion that properties rented without a host on-site are most likely to result in violence or disruptive behaviour, though she did not provide data to back up her claim.
“We have a strong host community here who take a lot of responsibility over their property, whether they’re present or not present,” she said.
While Dagg said Airbnb wants to continue to be “partners” with the city, she stopped short of promising to provide data about properties on its platform. She said the company is currently doing this in Vancouver, where similar bylaws have been introduced, but its competitors – namely Expedia and Booking.com – have not made similar pledges, potentially giving them an unfair advantage. She said Airbnb wants an “equal regime,” but noted the city would not be in a legal position to require data-sharing from private companies.
“We can’t be the only platform continuing to provide data,” she said.
Dagg did offer to provide Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, who is not on the committee but attended the meeting anyway, with data on the number of complaints Airbnb has received in Ottawa broken down by neighbourhood.
As the city prepares to move ahead with its own regulations, staff and councilors had also been been keeping an eye on an appeal against similar bylaws put forward in Toronto. While some had expected deliberations at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal to take as long as a year, the decision came down Monday afternoon that Toronto’s regulations would represent a “reasonable balance” of policy objectives aimed at increasing the city’s housing supply while maintaining short-term rental opportunities and the local tourism industry. The appeal was subsequently dismissed.