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Konrad Yakabuski

Home sharing: There goes the neighbourhood Add to ...

When French authorities published new population figures for Paris last week, showing a drop of nearly 14,000 residents, politicians and bureaucrats were quick to identify the cause.

It wasn’t the threat of terrorism. It wasn’t high rents or taxes. It was Airbnb.

Despite a ferocious effort by the current and previous administration at city hall to draw families back to the urban core, most central Parisian neighbourhoods lost residents between 2009 and 2014, a period that preceded the wave of terror that hit the city beginning in 2015.

“This trend finds its origin in the Airbnb phenomenon, which has strongly accelerated,” the mayor of the 1st arrondissement, Jean-François Legaret, told Le Figaro. “The consequences are dramatic. … Local services, and also daycares and schools, are threatened with closure due to a lack of” permanent residents.

Paris is the front line in the battle between the pro- and anti-Airbnb forces now spreading to Canadian cities, pitting renters and owners seeking extra income by subletting their properties on a daily basis against housing activists, hotel unions and less entrepreneurial residents just wanting a bit of peace.

The French “City of Light” has more active Airbnb listings than any other urban centre in the world. It’s where the home-sharing service, now worth an estimated $30-billion (U.S.), first took off as tourists seeking a more authentic Parisian experience or to save a few bucks swarmed to rent out a local’s apartment in the Marais for a few nights instead of bunking at a hotel. But what began as a hot new trend in 2008 has sparked an incendiary worldwide war.

In popular tourist areas, such my own Old Montreal neighbourhood, angry long-time residents are packing up as new owners convert residential condos into home-sharing properties rented out nightly. There are the usual complaints – noise, garbage, the insecurity that comes with constantly having strangers next door. But more than anything, it’s the feeling that their personal space is being violated that most bothers the anti-Airbnbers. Home no longer feels like home.

Unlike other players in the sharing economy, such as Uber, Airbnb and copycat services like it elicit opposition for reasons that have nothing to do with rent-seeking, if you’ll pardon the pun. Traditional taxi owners have fought Uber’s rise because it threatens their livelihood. And while the hotel industry faces competition from Airbnb, it has not been the most vocal in seeking to crush or regulate home-sharing. It’s been ordinary folks just wanting to protect one of the last places on Earth where they still have an expectation of privacy: their humble abode.

You may respect your neighbour’s “space.” But your neighbour may not care about yours. She may have no qualms about letting her apartment to a complete stranger when she goes out of town, or could not care less about violating the terms of her lease, and the law, by permanently listing her place on Airbnb and crashing at her boyfriend’s. While cities vow to find a solution to the Airbnb malaise that everyone can live with, it’s not clear there is one. At least not one that avoids enduring bitterness between neighbours.

An Ontario Superior Court decision handed down last month shows just how bitter things can get. An Ottawa condominium corporation took one Airbnb “host” to court for violating the condo declaration, specifying units were reserved for “single-family use.” The rogue unit-owner had warned prospective renters to “be discreet about mentioning Airbnb to anyone in the building and under no circumstances should [guests] ever leave the keys with the concierge.” (Why would anyone rent a condo on Airbnb knowing the owner’s neighbours don’t want them there?) Anyway, Justice Robert Beaudoin concluded the term “‘single-family use’ cannot be interpreted to include one’s operation of a hotel-like business, with units being offered to complete strangers on the Internet, on a repeated basis, for durations as short as a single night.” But one ruling in one province won’t be enough to settle a fight that is inflaming cities everywhere.

In Quebec, a nine-month-old law requiring properties rented for fewer than 31 days to hold a hotel permit from the provincial tourism department and charge a nightly lodging tax has been all but ignored, judging by the thousands of illegal listings still on Airbnb. Even if it was being followed, critics say it would only legitimize a service they want to see banned completely.

Otherwise, they say, there goes the neighbourhood – and maybe even your neighbour.

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