The first cancellation hit in March, 2020, just as Sana Zareey and Dr. Alicia Cundall were hosting electricians working on getting the new Tom Patterson theatre ready for opening in Stratford, Ont. The workers’ plan to stay over a month in the couple’s Airbnb was abruptly cancelled with the province’s order to halt all non-essential work. One by one, bookings disappeared.
“It was just a snowball effect,” says Mr. Zareey, then vice-principal at Nancy Campbell Academy, a private school in Stratford. “They cancelled and then all the cancellations poured in. We had been booked solid through Airbnb going into September, mainly for theatre, but people came for all sorts of reasons year-round, from hockey tournaments to weddings.”
As Airbnb and Ontario rolled out guidelines, the couple shifted to accommodating health care workers coming into Stratford. Dr. Cundall returned to work in the emergency room at Stratford General Hospital, just four months after their second child was born, while Mr. Zareey continued managing their Airbnb business. With 24-hour gaps needed for disinfecting between stays, they implemented a three-night minimum. So far this year, revenue is about 50 per cent compared to pre-pandemic times.
The couple joined Airbnb in 2016, listing their basement for $40 a night and quickly reaching “superhost” status with their warm hospitality. By 2019, they had bought two more houses, one with Mr. Zareey’s parents who run an Airbnb in their basement, currently under renovation. Their other homes are now leased long-term while Dr. Cundall does a fellowship in pediatric emergency at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto and Mr. Zareey finishes a PhD at the University of Toronto.
With restrictions lifting and limited theatre openings, travellers are returning, but pending bylaws in Stratford, like those in Toronto, Vancouver and cities across North America, pose new challenges to homeowners wanting to do short-term rentals. Mr. Zareey participated in community meetings early on, facing Bed and Breakfast (B&B) owners who were incensed about Airbnb moving into Stratford.
“I was a minority advocating to allow responsible homeowners to get licenses and become Airbnb hosts, because it’s a great opportunity for entrepreneurial people to make extra income,” says Mr. Zareey. “B&B operators weren’t happy as they had already invested in their own website, but eventually joined Airbnb. The pending bylaws around safety make sense. Airbnb operators should be licensed and have the same inspections as B&B businesses.”
Additionally, Stratford’s new provisions would limit short-term rental operators to renting out only their principal residence or one other dwelling unit for no more than 120 days annually.
Kathy Vassilakos, a City of Stratford councillor, and member of the Planning & Heritage subcommittee that developed the bylaws, says issues were around balancing the different public interest pieces that go with short-term rentals. There’s zoning, which has to do with land use compatibility, and the impact on residential neighbourhoods, affordable housing and rental stock which, like most municipalities in Ontario, is low.
“A lot of Airbnb and vacation rentals by owners were originally launched so people could use their existing principal residence for a little income,” she says. “But the shifts we’ve seen, along with some data analysis from other countries, show a number of short-term accommodators that own a lot of units. So basically, how do you control commercialization of short-term accommodation so it doesn’t impact your rental accommodation?
“The last piece is about licensing and levelling the playing field, ensuring that when visitors come here, they’re going to be safe staying somewhere that’s legal and licensed – whether it’s a hotel, B&B or Airbnb style.”
Mike Riehm feels conflicted about Toronto’s recent bylaws restricting short-term rentals to their own primary residence. President of Envirobond Products Corp., Mr. Riehm has been an Airbnb “superhost” for nearly a decade, renting out two units in his home, as well as his house when he was away. Pre-pandemic, he estimates he made an average of $4,000 a month per apartment over 12 months. Currently, he’s inactive on Airbnb, with the upstairs unit turned into a long-term lease and downstairs given over to rentals longer than 28 days, marketed to local people who are renovating their own homes.
“It makes sense that Toronto is trying to stop ‘ghost hotels’ (Airbnb listings not occupied by the owner and managed by a company) because there’s a shortage of long-term rentals,” says Mr. Riehm. “People were buying condos primarily to turn them into hotels, but others that just had nanny suites got caught in the crossfire. Now with the bylaws, even though I own the house and the basement apartment is in my ownership, I can’t rent it on Airbnb, because it’s not my principal residence.”
Besides the bylaws, he cites COVID-19, increased competition and a scary out-of-control party where people refused to leave as reasons for dropping out, although he’ll probably list his own apartment on Airbnb when he starts travelling again. He misses visiting Europe.
Nathan Rotman, manager public policy for Airbnb in Canada, is proud of the relationships Airbnb has developed with cities, as well as provincial and federal governments. For example, as of January, 2021, only registered hosts with a licence from the city were eligible to continue on Airbnb as a short-term rental in the city of Toronto.
“We collect 4 per cent municipal accommodation taxes and share booking data with cities on a monthly basis,” says Mr. Rotman. “We also launched the city portal, a bespoke tool giving live access to the back end of our platform. If a host has lost their licence or gone over their allotted days, the city can flag it for removal.”
Airbnb statistics show a trend toward local travel under 500 kilometres to reconnect with friends and family and to rural locations such as national or provincial parks to enjoy nature after being locked down. People also stay longer, with bookings of 28 nights or more increasing from 14 to 21 per cent.
“Cottage rentals and farm stays are doing well,” says Mr. Rotman. “People taking a week of vacation with the kids at the lake often extend that now that they can work remotely. That’s a significant change from pre-pandemic patterns.”