Opinion

Airbnb a Problem, Not a Solution, for Homeowners, Renters and Cities

It’s being picked on by councils around the world. And for good reason.

By Bill Tieleman 1 Nov 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

“Unregulated hotels operated in residential properties are disruptive to communities and pose serious safety concerns for guests and neighbors.” — Airbnb Watch website

Poor Airbnb. The “home sharing” multinational business valued at $25.5 billion is being picked on by mean old city councils around the world.

Watching current TV advertising in British Columbia, you might think Airbnb is practically a charity, helping out cash-strapped homeowners while providing tourists with budget accommodation and friendly experiences all over the world.

But that’s not what Airbnb is about. Airbnb is a problem — not a solution — for many homeowners as well as renters, neighbourhoods, cities and the hotel industry.

In my strata condominium, we recently passed new and tougher bylaws to ban Airbnb, Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), and any other short-term accommodation businesses.

We had already banned long-term rentals and only allow short-term rentals in hardship situations with strata council approval, but our lawyer said Airbnb could slip through the legal cracks, so we had to act with a more specific ban.

Why? Because our building owners didn’t buy a condo to see a revolving door of constantly changing guests all year — we want neighbours and a community.

And there are serious safety concerns about unknown and unreported visitors having full access to our building.

Nor do we want hundreds of people with no concern for or stake in the upkeep of our building traipsing the halls.

And most of all, because our building is not a hotel — it’s our home.

For renters in Metro Vancouver, already facing the extremely low vacancy rate of 0.6 per cent and brutally high rents, Airbnb is taking more rental properties off the market because owners can make more money turning homes or apartments into pseudo hotels.

For cities, Airbnb and similar companies undercut their ability to regulate businesses, protect residential neighbourhoods from becoming hotel districts and collect the taxes that fund needed municipal programs.

That’s why Vancouver is taking legal action against an Airbnb operator in a townhouse complex on the Fairview slopes because of neighbours’ complaints, with more lawsuits likely.

“Having some really timely, efficient and transparent enforcement process is incredibly important,” says Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs.

It’s no wonder the city is concerned. There are 4,728 Vancouver listings on Airbnb, according to website Inside Airbnb, and 67 per cent of them are entire homes or apartments.

The data also show that Airbnb operators really are running a business in many cases, with one-third of hosts offering multiple listings — 1,574 in Vancouver.

And in New York, a new analysis estimates more than half of all Airbnb listings violate new city rules banning ads offering entire apartments for short-term rentals. The offence carries fines of up to $7,500.

Clearly there are a lot of problems with “home sharing.”

But the Airbnb ads don’t talk about any of that. They only tell viewers that Airbnb owners and customers have a wonderful experience.

“I think the shared economy is a brilliant idea — we’re using technology to create community,” says Vancouver homeowner Michele Hall in the TV ad, noting that it helps her cover costs in an increasingly expensive city.

But Karen Sawatzky, a Simon Fraser University urban studies graduate student who follows Airbnb, says the ads are a classic tactic used by the company.

“I think that these ad campaigns are designed to pull heartstrings... and not actually get at the facts and actual issues,” Sawatzky said. “They do this a lot, everywhere that they’re facing regulatory pressure.”

Perhaps most owners and visitors do love Airbnb. And if a majority of owners in a condominium are in favour of allowing Airbnb and pass appropriate bylaws while respecting city rules, so be it.

But Airbnb’s business model does not seem concerned about following regulations, competing fairly with hotels that have to meet multiple and onerous rules to ensure guest safety and appropriate business practices or consulting other owners when one unit joins Airbnb.

Nor is it concerned in the least about devastating the regular long-term rental market, something it completely denies having any effect on.

But in Los Angeles, the Alliance for a New Economy issued a report estimating that Airbnb took 7,000 units out of the rental market. That is the equivalent of seven years of affordable housing construction.

Cities around the world — from Barcelona to Berlin to Nelson, B.C. — are all concerned about Airbnb’s negative impact.

And Airbnb’s footprint is astronomical. It now has 2.5 million listings in 191 countries and 79 million “room nights” booked per year — a number that could grow to one billion by 2025, experts believe.

Airbnb and its advocates tend to take a libertarian approach — “it’s my property and I’ll do what I want to, including renting it out.”

That’s simply wrong. You can’t drill for oil in your backyard, set up a neighbourhood pub in your living room or put a giant neon advertising sign on your roof — nor should you be able to run a hotel from your home without meeting municipal rules.

I am not universally opposed to home or apartment rentals either. I have stayed in several cities around the world through VRBO, and it can be a good experience if done fairly.

But in any apartment building or city, rules have to be followed for the protection of both owners, neighbours and visitors — and that must be the guiding principle, not increasing Airbnb’s massive value at others’ expense.  [Tyee]

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