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Niagara Falls
Thursday, June 20, 2024
Town passes short-term rental changes, despite outcry from industry

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has moved forward with some of its proposed changes to the short-term rental licence bylaw, despite outcries from industry stakeholders who wanted the decision to be made by the town's newly approved short-term rental committee.

The changes include a $1,000 fine for advertising without a valid licence number displayed on the ad and for the town to hire a third-party service (Granicus) to monitor and collect evidence against illegal operators and nuisance properties.

The change in advertising regulations means it is much easier to track down illegal listings, while the third-party service will give the town real-time evidence to fine these properties and take them to court if they do not comply.

The difference of trying to prove an illegal property versus an illegal advertisement is “day and night,” said Lord Mayor Betty Disero.

Short-term rental industry representatives spoke at council's Dec. 21 meeting, asking the town to let the decision be made by the committee of all stakeholders and urging council not to implement fines for advertising without a licence.

David Levesque, former president of the NOTL Bed & Breakfast Association, argued the short-term rental committee should make the decisions as to whether the proposed changes were appropriate and suggested a longer timeframe for the committee, which originally was to complete this one issue by April.

“I am a bit baffled by why council wants to set such a narrow scope and timeframe on the upcoming short-term rental committee,” he said.

“I do feel we have a long and bumpy road ahead of us as a community, dealing with the (short-tem rental) question and making sure the changes to the bylaw will make the difference we are hoping for.”

He suggested holding quarterly meetings after spring, to allow the committee more time to tackle issues.

“How can we not be in favour of setting the neutral backbones of collaboration between the town, the short-term rental industry and the residents for the betterment of all?” he said.

He also opposed the $1,000 fine for rentals advertising without a licence, arguing there isn't a way for owners to include that information on their websites.

Levesque said the best course of action is to wait until these platforms include a specific spot to list a licence number before implementing any sort of fine based on advertising, adding that rental operators shouldn't have to pay a fine for “what should have been the platform's responsibility in the first place.”

He suggested trying to get listing companies like Airbnb to include a field for licence numbers, “before overreacting by throwing fines at our own law-abiding citizens.”

However, he also said the “big platforms” for rentals “don't want to be responsible for enforcing a valid licence number.”

Couns. Norm Arsenault and Allan Bisback weren't buying it and asked if the owners provide their own descriptions on the websites, to which Levesque conceded they generally do.

Levesque argued that some sites like Booking.com change the listing descriptions.

Arsenault said he's aware of other municipalities with the same bylaw and that short-term rental owners in those communities are placing the licence number in the description.

“Markham just passed a bylaw back in June and they do include their licence number. So, it's it is being done, it is doable,” Arsenault said.

Levesque also said “the town is truly underestimating everyone's willingness to help on this particular matter and will be surprised how far they will get by simply asking us nicely to include our licence number everywhere online.”

He added he's already arranged for the NOTL Bed & Breakfast Association to put licence numbers on listings.

Levesque said he thinks there's value to the advertising rules, but wanted more time to explore the “legality” of it.

John Foreman, vice-president of the B&B associatiion, echoed Levesque's statements for the most part, encouraging council to let the short-term rental committee make recommendations on the bylaw before approving it.

“The current version of the bylaw amendments is a work in progress,” he said.

He said the association is interested in coming to a solution that meets the needs of residents and industry stakeholders through “fair practical and effective bylaws” and “fair and consistent enforcement.”

Some of the concerns of residents, such as the hollowing out of neighbourhoods, don't have enough data for council to make informed decisions, he contended.

“Another issue that's been part of the discussion and where additional data would be very valuable is the concept of the hollowing out of the community. This is a legitimate issue. That must be dealt with, with facts and analysis and sound judgment.”

Jason Clements, owner of Niagara Holiday Rentals, said short-term rentals are not super profitable.

While Foreman has suggested there is no data to quantify a hollowing out of NOTL and said based on his numbers just two per cent of homes are short-term rentals, Doug Rempel, another stakeholder, suggested those short-term rentals are crucial to the tourism industry.

No statistics were presented on the impact of short-term rentals on tourism-related businesses.

Rempel also argued, as have other industry stakeholders, that there's just as much hollowing out of town from snowbirds who leave for the winter. 

He criticized the idea of mandating that rentals must be principal residences, suggesting that it could “force rental activity underground.” The town has removed the contentious principal residency requirement from the bylaw but could revisit it later.

There was no mention of how the third-party service would be able to catch those underground operators with the advertising requirements.

Council rejected the presenters' concerns, with Coun. Clare Cameron again outlining her own worries about the short-term rental committee, pointing out that the industry seems to only want to make decisions based on the input of people who stand to directly profit from rental properties, such as owners and managers.

“I think for me the presentations that we heard tonight only underscored my discomfort and my feeling that another committee is not what we need right now,” she said.

She said she's been hearing “continually conflicting” views from the industry.

“Even just tonight we had one presenter claim that most short-term rentals are actually places where people live, and yet we've been overwhelmed by messages that expressed concern about putting in a requirement to live in a short-term rental, which implies the exact opposite, that most are not occupied by owners,” she said.

“And we've also heard people say that there's no money in this line of business, or in this kind of borderline commercial endeavour and yet we've heard data that says there are 565 properties. Are there 565 property owners who are persistently in the red making no money in this? And, if so, why do they continue doing it?”

She implored the short-term rental committee to consider actual resident impact, not just the effect on the industry.

Her concern is to “please to get some balance on the other side of the scales for the people who have been negatively impacted by short-term rentals. Not in a way that they're a short-term rental owner and they're not making enough money for themselves like a personal impact. But in terms of broader community impact,” she said.

“And whether that includes proving and showing the value chain, like demonstrating that having short-term rentals means a better quality of life for all in Niagara-on-the-Lake. If that's the case, great. Show me.”

Cameron said she's excited to see the effect of the third-party compliance company.

“(I) see a lot of potential in that service. I'm also very encouraged by hearing about how many other municipalities that are all trying to tackle this issue,” she said.

Levesque said he agrees with Cameron's suggestion that the committee must include residents.

“This balance of perspectives is not only desirable but an essential and valuable part of this process for everyone's sake,” he said.




Councillor raises concerns about third-party service

Coun. Erwin Wiens isn't convinced hiring a third-party compliance company to monitor and collect evidence against short-term rentals will have much of an impact on nuisance homes and illegal operators.

He pointed out that without enforcement, the town can have all the evidence it needs against a rental owner, it still won't be able to enforce the fines.

“I don't think this is that complex. The issue we have is enforcement,” Wiens said, adding based on inquiries he's made, bylaw and the Crown prosecutor was not consulted on the regulations.

“The linchpin of this whole thing is that we don't have the bylaw officers in place to do any enforcement whatsoever. I have serious concerns when an outside agency is going to be asking our complainants at two in the morning to go collect that and collect evidence and take pictures of noisy parties. I see that fraught with danger and fraught with problems.”

“We don't have the bylaw officer involved to lay the charge to get to court,” he said.

“I think we're leading the public astray if we think there's going to be any enforcement. This is all going to be just a report that we come back to.”

He also expressed concerns the committee would only bring back ideas council has already heard.

“I am very uncomfortable with where we're going because essentially in my opinion we're kicking this can down the road.”

Coun. Norm Arsenault responded by saying bylaw enforcement has been consulted on the issue, but Wiens requested that be removed from the record, suggesting it was inaccurate.




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