The Municipality of Grey Highlands was trying to bring some control to short-term accommodations (STA) in the area when COVID-19 hit.
“The municipality was ready to issue letters to STA operators beginning in April to request operators register to be licensed,” said Michele Harris, director of community and economic development for Grey Highlands. “One of the requirements of the licensing program was that all properties needed to be inspected prior to licence issuance to ensure compliance with basic life/safety/fire standards. Because of COVID-19, our inspectors have been unable to go out to inspect properties, which has, in effect, put our licensing program on hold.”
An STA is a unit rented for 28 days or fewer. The majority of them are unlicensed and often operate through the popular online house-sharing platform, AirB&B.
The Grey Highlands STA bylaw was passed by council in November, and in January, the municipality committed to a one-year contract with the third-party compliance agency, Harmari, as approved in the 2020 budget, and by council at a rate of $11,499.
Harmari (LTAS Technologies), is a short-term rental compliance service company that offers a software program to track STAs through advertising and classifieds. It is capable of collecting full case history; compliance notes; violation reports that can integrate noise, permitting, and maximum guests violations; a registration portal; a 24/7 compliance tip line; and incident reports.
In her May 6 report, Harris states the municipality had been working with Harmari to begin tracking the short-term accommodation providers in the area. The municipality had intended to launch the 24/7 call-centre hotline in April, and roll out the full licensing program in June.
“Our third-party compliance agency has been able to track 245 short-term accommodation listings in Grey Highlands to date, of which 106 are unique listings,” Harris says.
However, due to the provincial shut down, the municipality cannot do much in the way of licensing or bylaw enforcement.
“We can’t issue a fine the way that it is outlined in the bylaw because we cannot issue a licence,” said Harris. “And, we can’t say they don’t have a licence, if we can’t issue one.”
The STA licence program was established after a task force determined a licence would protect the local amenities; create accountability for and to ratepayers; enhance consumer protections and ensure area STAs are operating in accordance with the municipality’s bylaws.
Gary Gingras, owner and operator of Cedars on Lake Eugenia says the STA bylaw is very much needed, and that unlicensed STAs in the Grey Highlands are having a significant impact on commercial operations in the area.
“The private operators [STAs] are not required to pay commercial taxes, even though they are operating a commercial business. They do not require insurance to protect their guests from fires or injuries, etc., and they are not required to charge sales taxes. This has always given them a major competitive advantage over commercial operators,” stated Gingras during the open forum portion of last week’s virtual council meeting.
He added that the STA bylaw the municipality passed last fall was a “major step in the right direction to level the playing field and protect guests from unsafe, uninsured rentals,” adding that COVID-19 demonstrates the further need to regulate these premises.
“In the current situation, we [Cedars of Eugenia] have chosen to not accept bookings to help prevent the spread of this virus,” he said. “This past weekend, it came to our attention that some STAs and AirB&Bs are continuing to operate and entertain guests in our neighbourhood.”
Harris says when it comes to STAs hosting guests during provincial closure orders, it should be reported to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).
“We have been advised by the tourism organization of Ontario that AirB&Bs are considered non-essential unless they are housing someone who needs to be isolated during the pandemic,” said Harris. “As such, we have heard a number of complaints about hosted properties and we have been advising as we were instructed by the OPP, that those kinds of complaints should be directed to the OPP at this time for non-compliance with provincial orders.”
The Grey Highlands’ STA licence lays out a number of requirements for operators, including maintaining compliance with the municipal bylaws – noise control, property standards, fire code, building code – as well as provincial or federal laws and the Ontario fire code.
The program notes a licence will not be given to any premises that indicates more than two guests per room, or with a maximum of 10 guests per property.
All advertising must include the STA licence number and facilities must be operated in a fashion such that the operation or use will not cause a disturbance.
For a STA that is hosted, meaning the establishment has an owner/operator living full-time on-site during the rental period, an annual STA licence will be provided at no cost.
An unhosted STA, which does not have an owner/operator living full-time on-site during the rental period, will see an annual fee of $300 for the STA licence.
The required inspection also comes with a fee of $200. The penalty for operating without a licence is $1,000 a week.
On May 6, Harris noted that given the impact of COVID-19, moving forward with a fee-based program may not go over well with the local tourism industry right now.
“The impact of COVID-19 on our tourism economy is devastating,” stated Harris in her report to council. “The timing of the proposed implementation of the licensing program, when businesses are closed, is likely to yield no uptake, and potential backlash.”
Harris pointed to a few statistics coming out of a recent survey conducted by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, which indicated that 66 per cent of tourism businesses have seen a decline in sales/revenue in March 2020 compared to March 2019; and more than 52 per cent of seasonal tourism businesses will be unable to open for the summer season.
However, despite dwindling tourism numbers, council members voted in favour of beginning a pre-registration process that will see the unlicensed-STAs register with the municipality and the inspection process to resume once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“If we choose to solicit registration and application at this time, once the restrictions are lifted, the STAs could be inspected and a licence issued within seven days,” Harris said.