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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