Growth of rentals is hollowing out NOTL neighbourhoods
Special to The Lake Report
We are often asked why the hospital and both previous schools, Parliament Oak Public School and the high school, are closed.
And why is it that on Halloween for the past seven years not one child has come to our door in Old Town looking for treats? The answer I have been giving is that the Pied Piper came through town and all the children followed him out into the country.
But there may be another explanation. Over a period of time many family homes have become rental properties or B&Bs. In fact, there are now 147 cottage rentals, 25 villas (a “cottage” with four bedrooms instead of three), 142 B&Bs, 13 country inns and 10 vacation apartments, according to the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
If one were to assume an average of three bedrooms per home, that would mean that the town has lost approximately 1,000 bedrooms for families and kids. So, the kids have left town because there was no place to sleep! The Pied Piper is not to blame after all.
And if fewer families are living here and it is tourists who are now occupying those 1,000 bedrooms, one can understand why the community is no longer able to support a hospital or local schools.
B&Bs fit in a tourist town because the operators of them live in the homes and are part of the community. Good for them and good for the tourists who spend money here at the Shaw, music and jazz festivals, stores and wineries.
The taxes these establishments pay help to spread the tax burden and therefore we should end up with a vibrant community. And, yes, this is a tourist town and we should be grateful, but families, retirees and couples and singles live here as residents as well and should not be forgotten.
The 175 short-term rentals, however, don’t fit. They are commercial units operating in residential areas. They are residences without residents.
The people who temporarily stay there are not part of our community. The come, they party, they make noise in pools where there is one, they walk the street, perhaps attend an event, they sleep and then they go home.
But more importantly, they are not neighbours, they have no vested interest in the welfare of those who actually live here. And these short-term rentals seem to be increasing in numbers. Yet another family home in our neighbourhood is currently being converted into a short-term rental.
Some cities and towns are beginning to deal with this trend. Barcelona, Spain, is one example. It realized that with increasing number of cruise ships unloading thousands of tourists and others arriving by airplane, residents found that it was more profitable to sell their homes to be operated as tourist short-term rentals than to live in them.
Demand drove prices up and families fled the popular areas of the city. “Neighbourhoods” disappeared, as did the sense of community that once existed.
Barcelona city council recognized what was happening and put in strict limits as to the number of rental units per “block.” Obviously, some were not happy with this but the city is slowly working its way back to having neighborhoods with a sense of community.
NOTL council has been examining rule changes for short-term rentals and has heard concerns from many quarters. Perhaps it is time NOTL councillors think through what type of a community we would like to be in future years. Without serious thought and without having a longer-term strategy and a clear plan, eventually the community as we would like it to be will disappear.
Who knows, with some progressive action, current short-term rental properties may once again become affordable homes, families will return and the kids will get some of their 1,000 bedrooms back … and have neighbours.
* Bill Garriock lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake.