Vancouver strata lawyer fights Airbnb, one letter at a time
Lawyer Polina Furtula is also preparing a class action lawsuit as the city holds public consultation for proposed short-term regulations.
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A Vancouver lawyer who specializes in condo strata law is preparing a class-action lawsuit against Airbnb on behalf of strata councils across British Columbia who have struggled to shut down unauthorized short term rental listings.
The class action may end up being available to strata councils across Canada, said Polina Furtula, a lawyer with Westpoint Law Group. She’s also a homeowner who sits on her Yaletown building’s strata council, whose bylaws prohibit short-term rentals.
Like many strata councils, Furtula’s strata has security concerns about short-term rentals, and also fears transient guests may spread bed bugs into the building, which could affect property values. There was also an incident of a raucus "nude” pool party in the building’s shared swimming pool.
Going directly after Airbnb, instead of trying to fine individual homeowners, has proved effective for Furtula in several recent cases, where she sent a letter to Airbnb threatening to sue if the company did not remove specified listings from their website.
“First we tried using the tools provided by the strata act, which allows us to fine owners if they’re engaging in unauthorized short-term rentals,” Furtula said.
“The first thing you’re supposed to do is send a warning letter to the owner of the suspected Airbnb rental and then they have a chance to respond.”
The response, inevitably, is denial. The onus is then on the condo strata to prove that the unit was listed on Airbnb.
“When you look on Airbnb, it doesn’t list the address,” Furtula said.
“The way we know it’s our building is just the photos of the views and also from photos of the common amenities, like photos of the swimming pool area. We’re running into an issue of, we can’t prove that it is the suspected apartment.”
Furtula has found sending a legal letter to Airbnb yields quicker results. It’s something she started on behalf of her own strata council, but has also had success with other clients.
But, like a game of whack-a-mole, Furtula’s strata council now finds it harder to identify whether suites listed on Airbnb are from their building: listers have now stopped posting photos of the buildings’ common areas or the view.
Lindsey Scully, a spokeperson for Airbnb, said it appeared that Furtula had sent letters to the company’s Irish subsidiary, and the letters were then handled by Airbnb’s customer service team as a “neighbour” complaint (the site offers a way for neighbours to complain but expects “hosts” to resolve the issue themselves).
Airbnb has then forwarded the complaints to the hosts, who have chosen to deactivate the listing, Scully said.
Airbnb has worked with a number of condo boards in the United States to develop partnerships that involve giving the stratas access to a “dashboard” showing which units are homesharing, sharing a portion of the listing fee with the stratas and implementing rules set by the strata councils.
Scully said Airbnb works with the strata councils on a “case-by-case” basis to enforce those rules. The company has yet to develop any partnerships with Canadian strata councils.
Airbnb’s office in Canada is mostly concerned with public policy lobbying, while its Irish subsidiary handles business operations for all countries outside of the United States. The arrangement allows Airbnb to take advantage of Ireland’s low corporate tax rate.
The City of Vancouver is in the midst of public consultations for proposed short-term regulations, which would make it legal for property owners to rent their principal residence for a period of less than 30 days. But renting a suite or a laneway home would not be allowed. Those who do list their home will also have to have a business license and display it on their listing.
Based on her experience, Furtula thinks the city would get better results targeting Airbnb for enforcement rather than those who are listing on the platform.
Fairbnb, a coalition of unions, hotels and tenants’ rights groups, have called on Vancouver to enter into a legal licencing agreement with short term rental platforms like Airbnb. The companies can face fines or suspension if they post illegal listings.
The city is looking into that approach, Kathryn Holm, chief licence inspector, previously told Metro. But it’s complicated by the fact that Airbnb is an Internet-based business with no physical presence in Vancouver.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Airbnb deactivated listings after receiving letters sent by Polina Furtula. According to Airbnb, the listings in question were removed by the hosts.