Now is the time for the BC Government to hold Airbnb accountable

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      By Thorben Wieditz

      Airbnb has long had a housing-devouring reputation.

      Reports about how Airbnb has turned housing units planned, approved, and built as residential into quasi-hotel inventory—so-called ghost hotels—have been abundant across Canada. Every tenant knows that finding a decent place to live is not only extremely difficult, but that once attained, it is also horrendously expensive. Seeing large platforms systematically enabling the conversion of our housing stock into their permanent tourist inventory has been infuriating, and seeing governments struggle to hold these footloose companies to account has been discouraging. We know platforms have been resourceful in finding or creating regulatory loopholes to exploit, ensuring that their online inventory increases—always at the expense of long-term residents, neighbours, and communities.

      The report titled “The Role of Short-term Rentals in B.C.’s Rising Rents: A $2 Billion Impact”, publicly released on September 20 by McGill University Professor Dr. David Wachsmuth, quantifies how much more all tenants have had to pay because our governments apply a soft-touch regulatory approach to companies like Airbnb.

      While such studies exist in other countries, it’s a first in Canada. This groundbreaking report illustrates that, while Airbnb is not the sole culprit of our housing woes, the company (and others like it) worsens the housing crisis by permitting whole homes to be turned into dedicated commercial short-term rentals—which are removed from the market and drive up housing costs across the province. Moreover, the report shows that this is not an accidental by-product of a service that allows people to generate some modest extra income by renting out a spare room or their whole home occasionally. It shows that the top 10 per cent of hosts generate 50 per cent of Airbnb’s revenue; the top 1 per cent account for nearly 20 per cent. So-called multi-listing, commercial hosts have removed almost 17,000 entire homes from the market. Essentially, this report sheds light on the negative effect that this 20 per cent of hosts have on tenants in BC (while Airbnb, in its marketing, only ever talks about the 80 per cent who share just one home).

      In what’s been termed a housing supply shortage, we need to ensure that the Province enacts legislation that returns these homes to the long-term market. This is low-hanging fruit on the available policy menu. Legislation should also ensure that landlords and investors won’t be able to use platforms like Airbnb to turn tenants into “guests,” landlords into “hosts,” lease agreements into “bookings,” and illegal evictions into “cancellations,” as we see happening in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario.

      Platforms, most importantly, must be held accountable for the properties they profit from. We have seen this policy develop in Quebec in response to the tragic, deadly fire in an illegal Montreal Airbnb that killed seven people earlier this year. In Quebec, hosts offering properties on platforms like Airbnb must register with the Province, and platforms must display a valid Provincial registration number to ensure the listed property is legal and safe.

      There is room for hope that BC’s Eby government will do right by tenants on the short-term rental front.

      In December 2022, Eby’s government released its Housing Mandate Letter, which promised to “introduce legislation establishing new tools for local governments to help them better regulate short-term rentals in their communities.” After seeing short-term rental activity drop during the pandemic, they have since surged to an all-time high, with 28,510 short-term rental units active each day in BC—a resurgence that contributed to 28.1 per cent of rent increases in 2022. Knowing this, it is high time for the Provincial government to follow through on its mandate and establish province-wide tools to help local governments better deal with housing-devouring platforms.

      To address BC’s short-term rental problem, the report urges the Province to establish a province-wide registry for short-term rentals. Hosts should only receive a provincial permit if they can prove that their rental property is their principal residence and not an investment property or secondary home to ensure units planned, approved, and built as residential will be used to house residents—not short-term guests our tourists. Platforms must be held accountable for the content they advertise, which means that they must face stiff fines for every listing found online advertised without a valid permit. In addition, platforms must be forced to share data with the government so that it becomes feasible to identify hosts, the municipal addressees of their rentals, and the extent to which short-term rental guests are booking these rentals. Finally, this data must be shared with municipalities across BC so that they can effectively enforce their own regulatory regimes and bylaws.

      The Eby government has an opportunity to lead on this. It can illustrate to other provinces and regulators how platforms can be reined in to offer the services they set out to provide—occasionally sharing your own home to generate some extra income—without turning residential housing stock into dedicated ghost hotel inventory, and ignoring the local people in the process.

      Thorben Wieditz is executive director of Fairbnb Canada Network, which is a non-profit that advocates for equitable short-term regulations across the country.