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Vancouver condo council develops anti-Airbnb strategy

Vancouver plans to begin its regulation of short-term rentals next April, limiting them to people who are renting out a room in the house where they live or the whole house while they are away on vacation.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A Yaletown strata council has developed an aggressive new strategy to try to keep Airbnb rentals out of its building.

It's given up on going after condo owners themselves. Instead, it is targeting the online vacation-rental service itself.

The Parkview Gardens strata has had a lawyer send demand letters to the offices of Airbnb in Ireland and San Francisco, as well as the e-mail address for customer relations, listing all the apartments suspected of being rented out and telling the company to order hosts to stop listing them.

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Even though Airbnb has responded by saying only that it will pass the message on to the hosts, many of those hosts do remove their listing, says a representative for the strata.

"It's a very novel approach," said Polina Furtula, a lawyer who is also on the Parkview Gardens strata council.

The council turned to that strategy because, she said, "if you follow the current regulations for stratas, it's almost impossible to catch someone. It's very frustrating."

Now, Ms. Furtula says, the council is so encouraged by the results that it is planning a class-action lawsuit against Airbnb to get rid of the remaining holdouts in the building.

The 91-unit Parkview building has become a prime spot for rentals because it is directly opposite the Yaletown Canada Line station, making it very attractive for visitors.

"We're constantly seeing people coming and going with their little suitcases," she said.

The council has been trying to crack down on the short-term rentals for at least a couple of years.

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At first, people would use their real names and so the council could try to go after owners that way.

Then people stopped using real names and started being more cautious about the pictures they posted to make it harder to identify where the unit was. But strata-council members could still spot photos of common areas and views from inside the apartments looking out.

However, when they tried using strata rules to notify owners that they were in violation of those rules and would be fined, owners would declare vehemently that the apartment wasn't theirs.

"We've considered renting those units [to get evidence], but it's very expensive," Ms. Furtula said.

The Parkview Gardens council is in the same situation as hundreds of other strata councils in Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto, where short-term vacation rentals are extremely popular and vacancy rates are low.

But their efforts have been unco-ordinated and "somewhat piecemeal," said Octavian Cadabeschi, a researcher with the Vancouver hotel workers' union UNITE HERE Local 40. It is a member of a group called Fairbnb that has been highlighting problems with short-term vacation rentals and cities' efforts to regulate them.

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Some condo boards in Toronto have started lawsuits against hosts in their buildings. Others have tried levying fines. Some are hiring investigators to find rule-breaking owners.

Fairbnb has advocated that cities such as Vancouver insist that Airbnb take some responsibility for policing listings, instead of leaving it up to city officials to try to figure out who is operating illegally.

Vancouver plans to begin its regulation of short-term rentals next April, limiting them to people who are renting out a room in the house where they live or the whole house while they are away on vacation.

Commercial operations that treat an apartment like a year-round hotel room won't be allowed.

The past count of listings found about 6,000 in the Vancouver area just from Airbnb. There are about a dozen companies that provide short-term-rental platforms.

Airbnb and HomeAway have been in discussions with the city and promised to co-operate, but not to the extent of monitoring hosts for business licences or legality.

Airbnb's Canadian press secretary, Lindsey Scully, said the company does have a "neighbour tool" – a place on the site where neighbours can write in to complain about noise, damage or any other problem so that Airbnb can let the host know.

She said that, when the company gets complaints from neighbours, Airbnb passes those messages on to the hosts.

"We remind them they are supposed to abide by local rules and regulations. It's up to the host to decide how they handle that."

Airbnb has been under pressure from cities around the world, as local residents have complained that affordable rentals are disappearing for them and as municipal politicians move to regulate them.

It has led to lawsuits in cities such as San Francisco and New York.

Ms. Scully said the company, besides working with cities, has started a new program to work directly with whole buildings.

In about two-dozen buildings around the United States, the strata council gets access to a dashboard that allows them to see exactly what is being rented out by whom and when and has control over rules about pets or parking or numbers of nights a unit can be rented.

Most important, Airbnb is giving those buildings between 5 per cent and 15 per cent of the booking cost to cover the higher cost of maintenance and repairs.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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