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opinion

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.

A year after Vancouver reached an information-sharing agreement with Airbnb to help weed out illegal short-term rentals, the situation has not improved overmuch. The city’s enforcement team is running pillar to post, inspecting units and issuing warnings and fines to unlicensed hosts. Yet we continue to hear stories of stratas with so many illegal Airbnb units they resemble hotels and tourists staying in them being counselled to lie to inquisitive neighbours. Today, close to half of the 4,720 operators listed on Airbnb’s Vancouver website remain unlicensed.

The city recently released that dismal update after two Vancouver data experts examined host names and licensing information from Airbnb’s Vancouver website, and posted numbers on Twitter suggesting as many as 800 hosts had more than one listing. Vancouver, in an effort to increase the long-term rental supply, passed rules last year that restrict Airbnb rentals to principal residences and require all operators to be licensed. Since an Airbnb host can only have one principal residence, those with multiple listings usually indicate the principal residence rule is being broken.

The city’s own report stated that of 4,720 short-term rental listings in March of this year, only 2,628 are licensed. So far this year, 17 licences have been suspended, 89 listings were referred to prosecution and 274 violation tickets were sent out. This is despite an information-sharing agreement the city struck with Airbnb last year that was supposed to help shut down illegal short-term rentals. Mayor Kennedy Stewart tried to put a positive spin on the numbers saying he was encouraged by the enforcement results, noting one operator with 35 listings was fined $20,000. But that’s a bit like boasting about the high number of thieves arrested by police – interesting, but also indicative of a persistent problem.

It’s maddening because there is such an easy fix. If Airbnb wanted to shut down scofflaws, it could easily compare its own listings with the city’s roster of valid licence holders and remove those in non-compliance. But in Vancouver, as in other cities around the world, Airbnb refuses to get directly involved with enforcement.

Under the information-sharing agreement, Airbnb provides the city with names, addresses, licence numbers and e-mail addresses of Vancouver-based operators four times a year. It is then up to city staff to cross reference the information and chase down rule breakers. To Airbnb’s credit, when new rules took effect on Sept. 1, 2018, the company added a field on its website for a licence number and removed listings from 2,482 unlicensed hosts. But that was a one-shot deal. Since then, it has continued to accept new listings with false licence numbers and some with no numbers at all. To remove a listing, the city’s enforcement team must hound illicit hosts to take it down themselves.

There is one bright side; by co-operating with Airbnb, Vancouver has avoided being sued. Airbnb is an aggressively competitive company that does what it can to protect its domination of the short-term rental market. In the United States, it has taken Miami, Boston, Santa Monica and others to court to push back against restrictive rental regulations and demands it collect taxes. However, American courts are beginning to side with municipalities attempting to regulate short-term rentals. Earlier this month, Santa Monica won a court challenge by Airbnb and HomeAway against an ordinance prohibiting the companies from listing unlicensed properties.

There are good reasons behind Vancouver’s insistence on restricting short-term rentals to principal residences. The city’s vacancy rate has not been higher than 1 per cent for years and when Airbnb operated unfettered, hundreds of apartments and homes that might once have provided long-term rental housing switched to become lucrative short-term rentals.

However, just like Uber, Airbnb provides a service the travelling public clearly wants. And so long as demand exists, there will be websites or other ways of communication to connect willing hosts with tourists eager to rent. Too vigorous a crackdown on or by Airbnb could simply spawn new rental websites which in turn would put the city back to enforcement square one. So, while the city’s agreement with Airbnb is weak, it’s probably the best we can do in this digital age where information seems to move faster and be a step ahead of enforcement officials hot on the trail of illegal rentals.

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