Councillors approved plans on Monday to consider ways to aid NOTL's ailing short-term rental industry after a presentation by John Foreman, president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Bed & Breakfast Association.
Foreman asked for a 30 per cent reduction in short-term rental licence fees for 2021 and for owners to be allowed to delay paying their 2021 fees without penalty until they are able to determine whether they will open for the season.
He also asked to amend council's newly created short-term rental committee, to add a representative from the Bed & Breakfast Association. His concern was that there was not enough representation on the committee from members of the industry in NOTL.
Council's committee of the whole voted almost unanimously to add the two new members, Claire Cronier and Rene Brewer, to the committee, despite it creating an imbalance of industry representatives and regular residents. Council's original goal had been to create a committee with equal representation.
The recommendations for reducing licence fees are to be considered this week by town staff, with a report to come back March 15.
In an interview on Tuesday, Coun. Norm Arsenault, who sits on the short-term rental committee, said he's “not totally opposed” to decreasing licence fees, but thinks thinks it needs more discussion.
“My main concern is the budget,” he said.
Foreman also briefed councillors on some of the stark financial troubles that he said short-term rental owners are experiencing.
According to Foreman, most of NOTL’s short-term rental market made 20 to 30 per cent of their regular yearly income during 2020.
“In my own case, bookings were down 82 per cent from the previous year,” he told councillors.
Although vaccines are providing a glimmer of hope for 2021, he worries that the industry will still suffer.
Even with lockdowns lifted, rental owners need to operate with social distancing guidelines in place, which means reduced capacity, and that severely limits the ability to generate income, Foreman said.
“One thing I can tell you for sure is that there will be less B&Bs in Niagara-on-the-Lake at the end of the pandemic than there were at the start,” he said.
Arsenault said reducing licence fees would be a challenge and that some of the money is already accounted for.
“We hired Host Compliance this year to help us out with various aspects of a new bylaw that came into effect last December. So, some of those expenses have already been paid for and that money’s allotted to pay for this company,” Arsenault said.
“If that money’s not coming in from one place, it’s got to come from somewhere else.”
Foreman also took issue with a town bylaw that regulates licence renewals for short-term rentals. Under the bylaw, owners waiting to have their licences renewed are not allowed to operate, accept bookings or advertise. That is problematic because licence renewals have been backlogged for months due to the pandemic, preventing businesses from booking customers until May, he said.
“Normally, licence renewals would have been processed before the expiry of the current licence in the previous year,” Foreman said.
“Our request is that STRs awaiting processing of their licence renewal application be allowed to operate while their application is being processed. This seems only fair.”
Chief administrator Marnie Cluckie responded that senior management had already agreed to allow short-term rentals awaiting licence renewals to continue operations, but “hadn’t been able to communicate that effectively yet.”
“It’s a technicality that’s being fixed,” Arsenault added on Tuesday.
Coun. Gary Burroughs said he was happy with adding two more members from the short-term rental industry to the committee.
“As a member of the committee that met last week, it’s a terrific committee, and everybody’s quite willing to participate. I think adding two more will only make it a better committee,” Burroughs said.