The City of Toronto didn’t issue any fines against short-term rental operators for violating Ontario’s emergency order during the province’s two-month ban on most bookings, despite receiving nearly 180 complaints.
The ban — which was lifted Friday — applied to all rentals for 28 days or less, except those provided to health-care professionals, and others in need of emergency housing in Toronto.
By the end of May, 52 per cent of the city’s completed investigations into complaints ended with bylaw officers issuing the short-term rental owners warnings they were breaking the emergency order.
But several residents at 300 Front St. say that those warnings weren’t enough to stop short-term rental bookings from continuing in their building, which accounts for 20 per cent of city-wide complaints in the last two months.
Residents at the downtown condo told CBC News that most short-term rental units in their building appeared to be rented by groups looking for a place to party during the pandemic.
‘You’re opening up this Pandora’s box’
Winston Ma is one of those residents, and he worries that the partying will only get worse now that the provincial ban has lifted.
“You’re opening up this Pandora’s box,” said Ma. “I feel that [Premier Doug Ford] is putting our lives and health in jeopardy.”
Ma argues that it might be appropriate to allow short-term rentals to open up in areas of Ontario with few new cases of COVID-19, but not in the GTA where the majority of new cases are reported daily.
“Now you’re giving people the legal authority to come here and party,” said Ma. “They didn’t stop when there was a ban, and now that you’ve lifted this ban, what do you really think is going to happen?”
CBC News spoke to more than half a dozen other residents who described regular confrontations with groups carrying luggage trying to get on the elevator (despite a two-person limit) and loud parties in short-term rental units that spilled into the hallway and onto balconies during the ban.
Most of those residents say they’ve complained about specific units multiple times during the pandemic.
Between April 4 and the end of May, the city says it received 36 complaints about short-term rentals at 300 Front St. Of the 32 completed investigations from those complaints, 15 ended with bylaw officers issuing a warning through an emergency order notice.
City argues warnings were effective
Carleton Grant, who oversees Toronto’s bylaw officers as head of municipal licensing and standards, says the city didn’t issue any fines because their focus was on making sure people knew and understood the rules.
“We are seeing compliance and we are seeing the notices being effective,” he told CBC News, before the ban was lifted. “If someone’s really willfully non-compliant it will move forward to charges.”
Bylaw officers with the City of Toronto can issue fines to unit owners for violating a provincial order under the Emergency Measure Act.
No single unit was found to be breaking the ban a second time after receiving a warning through an Emergency Order notice, according to the city — although property managers at about a dozen buildings in Toronto received secondary notices letting them know about ongoing short-term rental activity during the ban.
Despite sharing complainants’ frustrations with those who were flouting the rules, Grant argues that investigations into the short-term rental complaints aren’t as simple as people might think.
“It’s really hard to justify that someone coming in with a wheelie bag or four people standing on a balcony aren’t allowed to be there,” said Grant.
“What’s really useful to us is the advertisements posted on different websites that are saying that this is available for one night or two nights … then we substantiate that with someone being there for those two nights.”
Toronto’s short-term rental bylaw still in place
Now that the provincial ban has been lifted, the city says its own bylaw limiting short-term rentals to a person’s primary address remains in place — and bylaw officers will continue to respond to short-term rental issues on a complaints basis.
But in a news release late last week, the city also noted that COVID-19 has affected its timeline for implementing a licensing and registration system for the bylaw.
“Once the COVID-19 emergency period ends and provincial orders are lifted, the city will fully resume regular enforcement of all city bylaws,” said the city news release.
In terms of enforcement of the ban at 300 Front St., property management previously shut down the building’s key exchange program in April, the same day CBC News contacted them about ongoing short-term rentals.
Since then, the condo corporation’s lawyer has “sent letters to several owners who the corporation believes have breached the emergency order,” according to the condo manager.
Why did the province lift the ban?
When the province announced that the short-term rental ban was ending last week, one of the reasons cited to CBC News was that “many people rely on the rental of these properties to supplement their income.”
In an email, a spokesperson for the minister of municipal affairs and housing also noted that short-term rental “operators and guests should continue to practise physical distancing, wear a face covering when physical distancing is a challenge, and wash hands frequently.”
But Ma doesn’t expect that to happen in his condo building.
“What makes them think that these hosts will adhere to these guidelines when they weren’t even doing that when there was a ban in place?”