Cities should think hard before Trimming Airbnb Principles

Airbnb and services like it are a terrific innovation. Homeowners get to make some money by renting out spare space. Visitors get to remain in a location that has more personality than a hotel room, with kitchen, laundry and possibly a cool neighbourhood to research. Both sides win.

So it is discouraging to see some Canadian cities throwing a wet blanket on the entire business. In Toronto, city hall is proposing new rules that would prohibit homeowners from leasing out basement flats and other secondary suites to short-term people. The rules would also prevent homeowners from leasing secondary homes to visitors. They could place their principal home on Airbnb while they’re off, or even a spare bedroom while they’re around, but not a condominium they purchased as an investment or as a place to live when they retire. Vancouver just caused similar curbs.

Advocates say that the principles will help fix a major problem: a lack of affordable rental housing. There’s scant evidence for it. In Toronto, officials made a ballpark estimate that in 2016 about 3,200 properties recorded for short-term rental weren’t principal residences. That’s a drop in the bucket in a city of almost three million people. In terms of secondary suites, the town says 1,759 lawful ones are created since 2002. That doesn’t count all of the off-the-books basement flats that you find in any major city, but they’re below the radar anyway. A town report admits that it is relying largely on “anecdotal evidence that short-term rentals are decreasing housing availability.”

There’s absolutely no assurance that owners of secondary homes or basement apartments would rent them out long term if they couldn’t place them on Airbnb. Some do not want long-term tenants. When they are not putting their spare space on Airbn they’re committing it to seeing relatives or making another use of it. They enjoy that flexibility, and it’s not easy to see why they should not have it. It’s their distance, after all.

1 homeowner who appeared in front of a city hall committee last week said she often uses her basement suite for family who have come to see from abroad. When she rents it on Airbnb, her guests are often neighbours’ parents on a visit to town from out of town. Another homeowner, a middle-aged guy with no retirement, said he and his wife trust the income from Airbnb-ing their little basement apartment. Without it they may not have the ability to afford to remain in their home of over three decades. Another said she rents out her basement suite to medical students who come from different parts of Canada for brief stints in the local hospital.

This form of testimony provides a very different picture of this short-term rental world than you receive from the critics. They complain about noisy short lived guests invading quiet neighbourhoods and investors buying up entire floors of condominium towers to rent out on Airbnb, creating dreaded “ghost resorts.” In actuality, says one homeowner on a neighbourhood chat group in west-end Toronto, “My guests aren’t fat-cat corporate rich kids or party animals. They’re performance artists, folk musicians, grandparents seeing grandkids, workers from different nations on short term missions, conference-goers, academics giving talks, young couples finding their feet on three-year work permits and ESL students from Brazil.”

Often the hosts are not fat cats either. They are ordinary folks who happen to have some excess space and want to take advantage of it. In my travels, my hosts have included a middle-aged celebrity in Mexico City who came on her bicycle to hand us the keys to her beautiful high-ceilinged family apartment and the mother of grown-up kids who let out rooms in her rambling old house in Dublin.

Airbnb and services like it are great for them, naturally. It’s great for their customers, who get a taste of local life. It’s very good for cities, too. Toronto, like Vancouver, is trying hard to drum up more tourist traffic. Modern travellers are searching for a fresh sort of experience, outside of the big attractions. They want to wander along Queen Street West or consume on the Danforth. If they can remain in a true area near, all the better.

Cities should think hard before they do anything to restrict that choice for people and even harder before restricting the capacity of local homeowners to welcome them.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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