Short term property rental services like Airbnb have become increasingly popular in recent years, and for some it is a convenient way to book accommodation, or to earn income on a property, particularly in areas lacking in hotel services, while for others it can be the headache next door. Meaford's council has been grappling with how best to manage this growing industry within Meaford's borders.
In late September of last year council asked staff to prepare a report exploring options for the municipality regarding the potential for licencing, inspection, and enforcement. That report was presented to council at their February 24 meeting, and it provided much for council to consider.
At present, Meaford's only tool for dealing with issues that can stem from short term rentals ,such as excessive noise, is through the zoning bylaw's cottage rentals section, but many short term rental properties would not fall under the cottage rental umbrella.
Under the current policy, 'cottage rentals' allows for the short term rental of properties with three or fewer bedrooms, but an analysis of current short term rental listings on Airbnb and Vrbo showed that a significant number of larger properties are available. The cottage rental policies do not allow for short term rentals of apartments or condominiums.
CAO Rob Armstrong told council that in January of this year there were 49 short term rental listings for properties in the municipality, and of those, 13 were for properties with more than three bedrooms. Armstrong explained that while staff identified listings that would contravene the cottage rental policy, in the absence of complaints there is little the municipality can do, as Meaford's bylaw enforcement is reactive rather than proactive.
“We are complaint driven, so we only respond to complaints,” Armstrong told council. “Based on our review of the online (listings) and seeing 13 (non-compliant listings), under the current policies of council, we don't go out and start enforcing those 13.”
Armstrong told council that since 2017, the municipality has received seven complaints related to short term rental properties.
Armstrong told council that some municipalities, such as neighbouring Blue Mountains, have implemented licencing systems to help regulate short term rental properties, but such systems come with significant cost.
“There is a significant cost in the establishment of licencing systems in that the Municipality would need to resource a licencing system with appropriate staff to both administer, inspect, and enforce a licencing system. This cannot be accommodated within the existing complement of staff without discontinuing other services,” Armstrong told council. “The Town of The Blue Mountains has approximately three full time equivalent staff that deal with Short Term Rentals and have over 300 licenced units. Grey Highlands is implementing a licencing system in 2020, and has budgeted $20,000 for compliance monitoring and have identified that staff required for inspections and licencing would be offset by the Licence costs. Grey Highlands have identified that there are 176 unique rental units as of January 2019.”
Armstrong suggested to council that with Meaford currently having far fewer advertised short term rental properties than some neighbouring municipalities, and with the low number of complaints, establishing a licencing system at this time is unwarranted.
“Based on the limited number of complaints and that the complaints are based on non-compliance with the Zoning By-law, it is staff’s opinion that a licencing system is not necessary at this time. Should Council wish to pursue licencing now or in the future, staff recommend that a separate comprehensive licencing report be brought forward for Council in advance of proceeding and funds being allocated in the budget to implement,” Armstrong told council.
Some on council worry that what is currently a small issue could grow into a much larger one, and they would like to find a balance between welcoming visitors and enforcing bad behaviour.
“This is the wild west,” Councillor Tony Bell told council. “You can rent this property out as often as you want, you can make the revenue you want, you don't even need to report it to the Minister of Finance, you just go ahead and do it, somebody would need to investigate you.”
Bell said that, while staff is suggesting that given the current number of listings and the low number of complaints would not warrant the cost of implementing a licencing system, he believes that Meaford should be working on potential solutions before a small problem becomes a much larger problem.
“This is a problem, and it will only get worse,” Bell suggested. “I do appreciate the comment that we shouldn't overreact, but I really look forward to looking into licencing.”
Councillor Steve Bartley reminded council that while the number of complaints is low, those enduring the frustrations that can come along with a short term rental property in a residential neighbourhood have come before council in the past.
“It wasn't long ago that some people came into the council chamber and they were pretty near brought to tears complaining about (a short term rental property),” Bartley offered. “I'm of the same opinion as Councillor Bell. There's 49 that we know of, but there could be 149, we just don't know. I have no issues with somebody that wants to rent their house out to a nice couple from Toronto and visit the municipality, but when they turn into party houses, we need to be able to shut them down, and I don't think we can do that without a licencing system.”
Deputy Mayor Shirley Keaveney suggested that council revisit the issue a year from now in order to assess whether short-term rental properties are becoming a growing issue.
“We could have a look then at how many new units we have, and whether there is a significant jump in the number of units, and whether we at that point in time need to at that point have a look at licencing,” Keaveney told council. “I think this is an issue that we really need to stay close to. We're lucky now, we don't have too many complaints, but it wouldn't take too much to change that.”