Short-term rentals like Airbnb in limbo, for now

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There seems to be confusion in the community regarding the legality of running short-term rentals such as Airbnbs, VRBOs and the like.

Doppler has learned that at least one property owner has received a letter from the Town of Huntsville advising the owner to cease and desist from renting out their property on Airbnb.

“Basically while we’re in the process of regulating Airbnbs, the staff are only dealing with things on a complaint-driven basis so I think that’s how they’re addressing things right now,” said Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison, referring to the notice.

Aitchison said the confusion regarding such rentals will be ameliorated once short-term rentals are regulated, just like any other business. That regulation may include licensing, changing the zoning, and ensuring that the property owners abide by fire safety regulations and participate in Huntsville’s recently implemented four per cent municipal accommodation tax.

He said in his mind the regulation could not come fast enough but said municipal staff is working on it. And for now, the municipal staff is basically responding to complaints by pointing to the residential zoning bylaw.

“Our zoning bylaw doesn’t recognize the quasi-commercial use of a residential-zoned property and so that’s what we’re addressing with the plan to regulate them,” said Aitchison.

Asked about the nature of the complaints, Aitchison said many are coming from the Hidden Valley area, where the mayor also owns a property which he once rented on a short-term basis.

“Here’s what it comes down to: people are complaining when there’s a lot of noise and parties and stuff, it’s not so much the use, it’s about the people using them. So if someone rents their place to a noisy crowd of people that drink and carry on, party and make lots of noise well into the night, well you’re going to get complaints. You’re going to get those complaints whether it’s someone renting an Airbnb or someone who lives there or someone who rents long-term,” he argued.

He cited his own experience as an example. “When I ran my Airbnb I got a request from a young fellow who was coming up for a graduation party. It was going to be 12 of them — so six of them were going to rent my house, six were going to rent the house down the street. I just told him ‘you know, you’re not going to enjoy staying here because you want to have some fun and make some noise and it’s a residential neighbourhood. You’re not going to have fun, and I’m not going to have fun listening to the complaints so I don’t think it’s a good fit for you.’ They said ‘yeah you’re probably right,’ and they didn’t stay.”

Asked why not use the Town’s noise bylaw instead, rather than make people stop the practice of renting out their property on a short-term basis if regulation is imminent, he said he challenged staff on that and was told that the use does not meet the zoning bylaw “so instead of trying to deal with every single noise complaint they’re pushing back, and stopping these people from doing it.”

Obviously, there are very different reasons for renting one’s property on a short-term basis. Some do it to help pay for things like property taxes, while others purchase properties for the sole purpose of renting them.

“There’s this place in Hidden Valley, for example, it’s an absentee owner,” said Aitchison. “I guess he lives in the city, and it makes no difference to him who he rents to, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t live in the community and so it makes no difference to him…  I think to some degree a message needs to be sent to those people, that other people live here… you have to be a little more engaged as a renter.”

Aitchison said the idea of Airbnb is the classic concept of a sharing economy. “I think it was envisioned to be homeowners renting to people not… creating huge industries out of it, so when that starts to happen you gotta regulate it.”

Admittedly, you can’t differentiate between those who rent their family cottage a few weeks out of the year to help them pay the property tax, versus those who run a business out of their property and rent it as often as possible. “That’s why you have to regulate them all,” said Aitchison, who also noted that hotels, motels, and accommodations that are charging the four per cent municipal accommodation tax are at a disadvantage if other rentals are not charging the tax.

I feel strongly that people who are in the commercial business of renting their cottage or their recreational property for profit, they should be subject to, at the very least, a licensing fee, they should be paying the municipal accommodation tax like everyone else who comes up to stay at a hotel or resort, they should be subject to some kind of inspection to make sure that the places are safe, their fire alarm works and that kind of thing.”Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison

On the flip side, Aitchison noted that the proliferation of rentals such as Airbnb and other such short-term rentals while great for the tourism economy is exacerbating the housing problem in the community.

“There are more and more units that are being taken off the market to be rented for people who are trying to work and live in the community, too,” said Aitchison. He said he got out of renting his property on a short-term basis in order to help facilitate the regulation of the same. He has since rented his property on a long-term basis but his latest experience has admittedly not been a positive one.

More and more people are opting to rent their place on a short-term basis because it gives them more control over their property, and they’re not subject to the Residential Tenancies Act, which many landlords say puts them at an unfair disadvantage when they get bad tenants.

“There are lots of factors affecting the affordability of rental housing and housing in general in our communities. Demand is obviously a big part of it but having to deal with the Residential Tenancies Act, I know all kinds of landlords who are saying they won’t do it anymore because there are people out there who are playing the system and it costs you a fortune. And they’re not everybody, don’t get me wrong, but they are literally ruining it for everybody,” he said, adding that at the very least the process of getting someone out if they are not paying rent or damaging property should be hastened.

In terms of regulating short-term rentals such as Airbnbs, Aitchison said he’s hoping to see a report from municipal staff presented to council this fall.

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12 Comments

  1. I live beside a short term rental and have had nothing but problems. The owner advertises for large groups and gets party people who show no respect for their neighbors . The noise is non stop. If it is within business hours you can contact the bylaw officers but after hours you are to contact OPP. They told us the last time they came that they will no longer will respond to noise complaints and I do not blame them, they have better things to do . Something needs to be done. It is ruining neighborhoods.

  2. Marsha , good point. I have been to your house and you have a beautiful spot. I cant imagine how frustrating that would be. I can tell you as fact , a home owner in Hidden Valley told me that if they could have searched and found out that the neighboring house was an air bnb , they would never have purchased. Partying / loud music / people urinating off the deck beside them. Regularly. Their words , not mine. I had heard there were 15 air bnb s in Hidden Valley ?? As a Realtor, I will be finding that out the next time I list a home in there.

  3. Perhaps part of any bylaws considered should be a limit on the number allowed in any given area based on a ratio or percentage. Once that limit was reached then then no more could be registered until an existing one was closed down.

    • Brycen Pollard. on

      Unfortunately the city cannot selectively enforce bylaws. So either enforce them or change them. Otherwise I can see this turning into a huge mess for all parties.

    • Jeff Scarfone on

      Staff have it right! Air B&B’s or other short term rental platforms should be treated as a commercial use and not be permitted in a residential zone. A municipality could create an exemption and allow a residential owner to rent ones personal residence for a specific number of days in a year to help cover the expenses. If the owner occupies the property the use would be considered residential. If the owner does not live at the property the use is commercial. Zoning should apply to short or long term leases… As a professional landlord I can attest if you rent to the wrong individual you have no protection as a landlord under the Tenant Protection Act. Noise should be regulated by fine. Fines should be significant, let’s say $1,000 per occurrence. If the fine is not paid it should be put on the property tax bill. It would be up to the owner to try to collect the fine from the offending party. Huntsville and it’s surrounding areas with its natural beauty is a desirable place to visit. There are many good commercial establishments and hotels property regulated and inspected for our short term guests. Why are we allowing uses that are not provided for within the zoning by-law? It is not fair to the families living in Hidden Valley or families living elsewhere in the community to be relentlessly subjected to this!

  4. I also live in hidden valley and because of my bedroom bathroom amount it was required I install an additional septic system at around $10000. Even though only 3 people live in the home,compared to sometimes 20 people on one septic system on one tank in a unregulated short term rental,obviously something wrong here….

  5. I am an Airbnb host. I am a senior. We rent two bedrooms and receive a modest income which augments our meager pensions. It helps pay the taxes ($3000 annually) Vehicle expenses( a $1000 every time a mechanic looks under the hood), etc. It’s not only the extra income which helps but the joy of welcoming visitors from around the world and being ambassadors for our town and region, helping with restaurant suggestions, suggesting sites to visit and company that a lot of seniors need and don’t get. If some of these regulations come into effect like zoning changes (lawyer$$$) etc. it would not be worth our while. Lets be careful here and not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I may have to start walking the 10Km to town because I can’t afford to have my car fixed and the public transportation out our way sucks.

  6. I am a short term vacation rental owner, not in the Hidden Valley area, but rather in a very rural part of Huntsville. We have a specific clientele, number of guests, no dogs or pets etcetera, and have had no problems with any complaints from neighbors or from anyone. What is happening in Hidden Valley should stay in Hidden Valley and their problems not be reflected in other areas where there is a peaceful relationship with property owners in the area.

  7. If our “market value” assessments and taxes where not such a crazy mess, maybe owners would not feel the need to rent their homes.
    I find it somewhat hard to believe that a person would pay literally millions of dollars for a lakefront home and then want to rent it to total strangers but the lure of the internet travel agents and rental agencies, many of which have no local basis at all, seems very strong and appeals to the owner’s desire for a monetary gain. Maybe some of these owners are just using this income to help defray holding costs as they wait for the real estate value to rise high enough that they wish to flip the place and head for a community they like better.

    None of this changes the fact that a commercial use in a residential zone is simply not allowed, never has been but then this has never been enforced for rentals.
    Enforcement driven by complaints has its problems partly due to the fact that any complainant knows very well that in a small community their complaint will not remain anonymous for long.

    I think it was President Reagan who once said, “if it moves tax it and if it stops moving subsidize it!” so I’m wondering when we will get to the last part of his plan of action with these rentals.

  8. Richard Rutsch on

    The likes of the Airbnb rentals is very good for the local tourism. On many fronts. The tourists who choose to stay in our area spend a certain amount of money in town, be it crafts or restaurants.
    The money they spend at lets say an Airbnb gets spent again by the landlord of an Airbnb locally.
    We spend all the money we make on Airbnb in Muskoka.
    It allows us to live here in our retirement years.
    The local lodges, are full. There is not enough accommodation locally to house all the tourists that visit our community.
    The people who want to stay in a resort will choose that option.
    The people who want to stay in a hotel will choose that option.
    The people who want to stay in an Airbnb will choose that option.
    As for Hidden Valley. There is only one problem Airbnb rental. An owner who doesn’t care about others. This problem is being dealt with by the town.

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