Thorben Wieditz is executive director of Fairbnb Canada Network.
Addressing the housing supply shortage is a pressing policy issue for any level of government in Canada. Our inability to produce housing fast enough to accommodate new Canadians has dominated recent headlines. Scarcity drives up costs, so the argument goes, and makes housing less attainable and affordable to those in need of long-term accommodation.
But one issue contributing to our housing woes has been almost entirely absent from the conversation: Airbnb’s ravenous appetite for residential units.
Short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb have helped convert tens if not hundreds of thousands of residential units into dedicated, ghost hotel suites. Units once planned, zoned, approved and built as residential have been converted to commercial space to accommodate the travelling public. Last week, a report by McGill University researchers estimated that roughly 17,000 housing units had been lost to short-term rental platforms in B.C. this summer alone.
The problem is the short-term rental operators, not the people who occasionally rent their properties.
Studies have shown repeatedly that a minority of hosts control the majority of Airbnb’s inventory and are responsible for most of the company’s revenue. In B.C., the McGill report states, 20 per cent of the hosts are responsible for 48.8 per cent of total revenue generated, while the top 1 per cent of hosts – just 1,930 operators – accounted for 20.7 per cent. In Winnipeg, according to watchdog InsideAirbnb, an operator hidden behind the profile name “New Host” operates 87 entire homes in that city alone.
In short, commercial operators are systematically buying up or leasing housing stock and converting it into dedicated, short-term rental use, with platforms providing anonymity. So if we agree that housing is in short supply, why don’t we rein in this home-devouring activity?
Some jurisdictions have taken steps in the right direction. Vancouver began to regulate such activity in 2017 by ensuring only principal residences can be used as short-term rentals. Toronto followed suit after an extensive legal battle in January of 2021. Still, enforcement remains an issue – and not all municipalities have the resources to establish rules and monitor activity.
That is why we have been advocating for an approach that puts provincial governments in the driver’s seat, to ensure that every housing unit planned and approved as residential will not be converted into quasi-hotel use. The idea is simple: Establish province-wide registries for hosts to register their properties and tie them to people’s principal residences.
Perhaps the B.C. government will be an early adopter. It is now considering a province-wide approach, as outlined in Premier David Eby’s housing mandate letter and confirmed last week publicly by Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon. Although details of his plans are not yet known, Mr. Kahlon has repeatedly made public comments that he will introduce legislation this month that will provide “new tools” to help municipalities.
Platform accountability measures are also crucial. On this front, Quebec is leading the way, tightening up province-wide registration regulations after a deadly fire killed seven people in an illegal Airbnb in Montreal earlier this year. Each Airbnb listing in that province will have to display a valid, government-issued registration number, otherwise the company can be fined up to $100,000 for each illegally advertised listing. (This also applies to other short-term rental platforms.)
Data sharing is essential, too. Short-term rental data that a provincial government collects can be shared with municipalities that would like to protect their housing stock. Canada’s Revenue Agency already has principal residence data for the entire country; cross-referencing these data points with provincial registries would further help ensure compliance.
Since the provinces are primarily responsible for housing policy, we hope that other jurisdictions will follow the lead of Quebec (and possibly B.C.) in setting up short-term rental registries, instituting principal residence requirements, allowing municipalities access to the collected data and, most importantly, holding platforms accountable for the properties they advertise. Short-term rental regulation should be considered low-hanging fruit, and be on every housing policy menu if maximizing supply is the goal.