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Toronto must act faster to regulate Airbnb: councillor

Everyone from landlords to criminals could take advantage of the "policy gap" around Airbnb and other short-term rentals, says Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam says Toronto is dragging it feet on regulating short-term rental services like Airbnb.

Torstar News Service file

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam says Toronto is dragging it feet on regulating short-term rental services like Airbnb.

A Toronto councillor is accusing the city of “dragging its feet” when it comes to regulating short-term rental services like Airbnb.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam first brought the issue to the attention of city staff last year, after residents complained a house in her ward was rented on Airbnb and used to host raucous parties.

“There were fights outside and public disorder … it was no different than what you’d see in the Entertainment District,” she said.

A similar situation in Mississauga made headlines this week, and has local politicians pressing for regulatory changes.

Wong-Tam moved a motion in December asking city staff to investigate ways of regulating short-term rentals. However, months later, she says nothing’s been done.

“We don’t anticipate anything coming back from staff anytime soon. We were told the work would begin in September of 2016,” she said.

In the meantime, she said people are using Airbnb to skirt zoning bylaws and run quasi-legal hotels – or worse.

Wong-Tam says police have told her about Airbnb units used as “roving crime scenes” for drug dealing and human trafficking.

She’s also concerned landlords are evicting tenants in order to make more money using sites like Airbnb and FlipKey.

“That should be a real concern for a city that has so little affordable housing,” she said. “It’s the most vulnerable residents who are being given eviction notices.”

Wong-Tam would like to see Airbnb prevented from operating in Toronto until the city decides how to regulate it, but she doesn’t believe a ban is feasible. Instead, she wants staff to fast-track a report on the issue and ensure enforcement mechanisms have teeth.

“If the penalty isn’t severe enough, people will keep skirting the rules,” she said.

Other cities have successfully regulated Airbnb, said Toronto condo lawyer Denise Lash. Berlin has banned tourists from renting entire apartments, while San Francisco has imposed rules on short-term rentals, including requiring hotel taxes to be paid and preventing people from renting homes they don’t live in.

“There’s a lot of regulation that can be done by the municipality and I think it should be done,” Lash said. 

Despite her concerns about how Airbnb is being used,  Coun. Wong-Tam praised the company, saying they’ve been more willing to work with the city than other sharing economy companies, including Uber.

“Airbnb has been very proactive. They’ve reached out and been professional and courteous. They’ve said ‘regulate us,’” she said.

Uber, on the other hand, “came out all guns blazing and hostile, saying ‘the rules don’t apply to us,’” she said. “That’s a major difference.”

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