As Collingwood dissects its short-term rental ban, one resident with experience on the matter is urging the town to keep that can of worms sealed up tightly.
The town is currently reviewing the zoning bylaw that prohibits short-term rentals except for bed and breakfasts or hotels. A survey asking the public to identify “needs, challenges, and opportunities” for short-term rentals prompted Collingwood resident Thorben Wieditz to speak out on the issue.
“When I saw the Collingwood survey, I was kind of blown away because it really did not establish the difference between a short-term rental that is being occasionally used and rented out by its owner or a commercial operation owned by someone who has multiple houses and does it as a commercial enterprise,” said Wieditz.
He is the Canadian director of Fairbnb, which was formed in 2016, and spearheaded by Unite Here Local 75, the union for hospitality workers in the GTA. It began because hotel workers were concerned that the collective agreements they had worked to negotiate couldn’t protect them from the “ghost hotels” popping up in Toronto and the GTA as condo units and others became short-term rentals on platforms like Airbnb.
Fairbnb helped cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa come up with legislation to allow homeowners to rent out their own unit occasionally but prevent investors from stockpiling housing stock to turn it into short-term rentals that were effectively hotel units.
“In Collingwood, from what I see there are lots of short-term rentals, but the main difference [from the city] is they are not allowed, except for bed and breakfasts, which I think is a good rule,” said Wieditz. “Housing is at a premium. There is very little rental stock that’s being produced. There are people that are leasing or buying up housing stock to turn it into hotel-use and I don’t think that’s the right way for a municipality that has an interest in maintaining affordability or accessibility to housing for people who actually want to live here.”
Collingwood council has not made any decision to change the rules surrounding short-term rentals in town, which refers to any rental less than 30 days. But council has expressed an interest in reviewing the local bylaw that prohibits them.
“It seems to me the city is trying to regulate it in a way that might actually become more problematic than what the situation is right now,” said Wieditz. “If you come up with a very elaborate regulation that allows short-term rentals under certain qualifications, then it becomes a burden of proof to establish whether a particular property is being used illegally or not. It becomes very difficult.”
The town had a third-party scrape data from popular online rental platforms including Airbnb, VRBO, and booking.com in Feburary 2022 and identified approximately 300 active short-term accommodation rentals available, despite the town-wide ban.
A staff report noted the town is concerned about how the current bylaws can be effectively enforced given the available resources. Enforcement is largely initiated on a complaint basis.
Between 2014 and 2022, the town’s bylaw services division received 263 calls for service related to STAs. In 2019, they received 58 calls, in 2020, they received 54, in 2021, they received 81 and in 2022 as of June 1, they received 33 calls.
According to Wieditz, a prohibition is easier to enforce than a regulated use. He noted it’s simple to scrape websites and identify hosts who are renting out units illegally.
“It’s a pretty easy task to determine whether the unit is being lived in, or rented out to guests and visitors and tourists,” he said.
It gets more complicated when enforcement officers have to prove there were six guests instead of the allowed four, or if a rental unit was rented out 92 days a year instead of 90.
“If the goal for Collingwood is to figure out a way to protect the housing stock and the housing market for our residents, [allowing commercial short-term rentals] is the wrong approach,” he said.
His opinion is that the Collingwood bylaw be left as is with a general prohibition, and that the town hire a third-party firm to help with enforcement by tracking down operators who are renting illegally.
The town has put out a tender, which is now closed, to find a third party to generate an inventory of active short-term rentals within Collingwood’s boundaries by monitoring short-term rental platforms.
Wieditz suggested if any regulation does occur to allow short-term rentals, it should be tied to a principle residence requirement, meaning only those who live in the home full-time could rent it out on a short-term basis while they are on vacation or away for a weekend.
“You immediately take care of the nuisance situation and the community cohesion situation. Secondly, it wouldn’t remove housing stock,” said Wieditz.
He said without a principal residence requirement in the regulations, commercial short-term rental operations will use housing stock as ghost hotels.
He specified there’s a place for commercial rental operations, such as Blue Mountain Village, but it’s not in residential neighbourhoods. He said towns have zoning bylaws for hotels and bed-and-breakfast operations, and a commercial short-term rental is more like those uses than it is a residential use.
“If you look at how we plan for housing, we follow provincial policies and growth plans and official plans to provide residential housing stock,” said Wieditz. “Everything is being designed, planned, and built as residential housing to meet these targets. At the end of the day, short-term rental hosts convert residential housing stock into commercial units.”
Arguments are made for the economic benefit of short-term rentals, and one of the questions in the town’s survey asks residents to identify the economic benefits of short-term rentals.
However, Wieditz argued there are also negative impacts on local economics, particularly on hotel industries in the “regulated accommodation sector.”
“Short-term rentals decrease availability and increase rental costs and housing costs because it limits supply and we have more than enough demand,” said Wieditz. “I would never say short-term rentals created the housing crisis, it’s just not true, but I would always say that short-term rentals contributed to it. It doesn’t help if we legalize a practice of transferring housing stock to hotels.”
In his work with Fairbnb, Wieditz and others are creating a cooperative platform to be launched in Toronto that will allow people to list their short-term rental units as long as they have a city permit. The platform will cross-reference the city’s permit database to confirm.
The Fairbnb rental site will also direct 50 per cent of the booking fees toward a land trust in the city. The project is supported by a grant from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Wieditz said the platform is an effort by Fairbnb to "lead by example," to show what is possible.
The Town of Collingwood is still accepting public feedback for its review of short-term rental rules, you can fill out a survey or submit feedback through the Engage Collingwood website.
The town is also hosting a short-term accommodation open house on Sept. 14 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Collingwood Public Library in community rooms B and C on the third floor.
Staff anticipate reporting back to council on the matter in December.