Airbnb fights back against Toronto councillors’ call for platform to ‘play by the rules’

A Toronto councillor is calling on Airbnb to “play by the rules” set out by the city — but the popular home-sharing website is standing firm.

In a member motion on the agenda for council this week, Coun. Joe Cressy is pushing to issue a request for Airbnb and other similar companies to voluntarily abide by city rules approved in 2017, which can’t be enforced right now because of an appeal by multiple home-sharing hosts.

The city’s low vacancy rate requires action, according to Cressy, who said thousands of Airbnb units may be better used for longer-term rentals.

He cited a recent report from Fairbnb, a national coalition calling for fair regulations around home-sharing, which suggests more than 8,200 Toronto listings — or around 6,500 entire homes — would be breaking the rules permitting home-sharing only in someone’s principal residence.

“That’s deeply, deeply concerning to me when we have a rental housing shortage,” Cressy said.

Airbnb sees it differently. In an email campaign sent to hosts and obtained by CBC Toronto, the American company accused Cressy and Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who backed his motion to council, of working “hand in glove with the hotel lobby” and citing “biased and faulty research from a lobby group to villainize residents” who use the platform to earn extra income.

“It is the democratic right of impacted residents of Toronto to appeal regulations put forward by city council,” the email reads. “This process exists for a reason and Airbnb will not infringe upon that right by implementing regulations that are currently being challenged.”

Toronto host feels ‘betrayed’ by councillor motion

Alex Dagg, director of public policy for Airbnb in Canada, confirmed the email went out, and stressed the company feels it does not have the authority to comply with rules that are not heading to the province’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal until August.

“Airbnb has been a huge benefit for thousands and thousands of families as they try to make ends meet in a very expensive city,” she said, adding the company’s data shows there are now 14,000 hosts in Toronto who typically earn just under $10,000 by sharing their home around 90 nights per year.

She did not provide any numbers on how many hosts would be breaking city regulations if they were enforced, but noted many report using the platform to help afford to live in the city.

Seaton Village resident Barbara Disman is one of them. For nearly five years, the English-as-a-second-language teacher has rented out several rooms in her home.

“It helps me with my mortgage… and keeping my head above water financially,” she explained.

Disman said she once voted for Cressy, and now feels “betrayed” by his motion.

Large-scale operations ‘destabilizing’ for neighbourhoods

But Thorben Wieditz, a spokesperson for Fairbnb, said the concerns are not about homeowners. Instead, the focus is large-scale commercial operators scooping up multiple homes and units to run home-sharing businesses.

Wieditz also defended the findings in Fairbnb’s recent report, saying data-scraping of the Airbnb platform over the course of four years was used to identify hosts breaking the city rules — which require operators to get a licence and limit homeowners and renters to offering their primary residence, which can include up to three rooms or the entire house, for only up to 180 days per calendar year.

“What you can’t do, as investors are doing, is purchase up dozens of units of homes and converting those into short-term units,” echoed Cressy. “That’s destabilizing for neighbourhoods.”

As for Airbnb’s accusations that his group and the councillors are in the pocket of the hotel industry, Wieditz called the suggestion “ludicrous.”

He did note Fairbnb was founded by a hotel workers’ union, but said “there’s a big difference” between workers and the hotel industry itself.

“To simply write off their research as the hotel lobby is simply another attempt by Airbnb to deflect attention away from their own unwillingness to address the rental housing crisis in our city,” added Cressy, who stressed the number of condo boards, residents and renters’ associations who are now part of the discussion.

He maintains Airbnb should be making more effort to be part of the “housing affordability solution.”

“And they can do that simply by abiding by the city’s rules that we passed, rather than playing this out in the courts,” Cressy said.

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