'1234-ABCDEF': Enforcement gap may be behind hundreds of bogus short-term rental licences

February 1, 2021 Jon Woodward, Videojournalist, CTV News Toronto

TORONTO -- A sweeping crackdown by short-term rental platform Airbnb has reduced the number of listings that don’t appear to be in compliance with new City of Toronto rules by the thousands – and a gap in enforcement may explain the hundreds that apparently remain.

An estimated 1,500 Toronto short-term rental listings still display licence codes that don’t match ones given out by city staff – including one code, “STR-1234-ABCDEF,” that Airbnb has now taken direct action against after a CTV News investigation.

The company says it filters new listings based on whether they declare they have a licence, but doesn’t check the city list, saying that’s a job for the city – so even an obvious fake might get through.

Meanwhile, one city councillor says the city is struggling to process thousands of licence applications and needs extra people to get all the work required done.

“It’s the wild west,” said Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher. “It’s time to say, ‘Here’s the rulebook. We’re playing by the rules.’ Perhaps the city needs to up its game and enforce it.”

Under City of Toronto rules that went into force in January, people may only list their primary residence for 28 days, and they need a licence which must be displayed in their Airbnb listing.

The idea behind the licencing scheme is to allow residents to make money by using their homes as hotels in a limited way, but to rein in tourism and ensure that suites that may have been converted to hotels can remain rental homes.

CTV News examined digital ‘scrapes’ of Toronto Airbnb listings taken by a New York-based project, Inside Airbnb, and compared them to the list of approved city licenses as of Feb. 1.

In a scrape done Jan. 2, there appeared to be 13,518 short term rentals, and of those, 12,909 did not appear to have a licence number that matched a city list.

But on Inside Airbnb’s Jan. 11 scrape, the number of short-term rental listings had dropped to just 3,977, and of those 1,549 didn’t appear to have a licence that matched the city’s list.

Airbnb confirmed the company had moved many online listings from short-term rentals to rentals with a minimum term of more than 28 days, but didn’t provide exact figures.

However it appeared to leave some of those listings that declared a licence – even if that license didn’t match the city list – alone.

Company officials said it’s up to the City of Toronto, using a service called CityPortal, to flag those listings.

When presented with the “STR-1234-ABCDEF” example by CTV News, company officials said it flagged that listing just as it would have if city inspectors had used CityPortal. When CTV News checked late Wednesday, that listing had a minimum booking of 28 days.

The listing’s operator didn’t return calls. A manual check of some other listings uncovered one operator with 18 listings, all which appeared to display licence numbers not granted by the city.

“It’s a joke,” said Thorben Wieditz of Fairbnb, a group which has been critical of short-term rentals encroaching on housing. “The question we have is why they are still online or why they have not de-listed or deactivated them.”

Toronto’s City Council will meet Tuesday with an agenda item to discuss this issue. A city report says it received 96 complaints in the month of January, issued four charges, and one notice of violation. The city says it’s considering hiring a company to digitally analyze listings as well.

The report also says there have been 2,744 licence applications approved, 34 cancelled, 15 denied, nine revoked, 135 which it intends to deny, and 326 under review.

Airbnb itself became licenced as a platform on Dec. 18, the report says, and Booking.com is still in the licensing process.

“Other companies have chosen to terminate their short-term rental operations in Toronto and not obtain a licence, such as Expedia and TripAdvisor,” the report said.

In a statement to CTV News Toronto, Airbnb said their tool, Airbnb City Portal, helps cities to enforce rental rules.

"In the implementation of its STR law, we’re incredibly proud that Toronto used the Airbnb City Portal, a tool we recently created to help cities enforce the law and rebuild the tourism economy," Airbnb said. "When places like Vancouver, San Francisco and Japan have implemented short term rental rules similar to Toronto's, Airbnb’s community has benefited from the regulatory certainty and been able to grow as we moved forward - and we expect Toronto to be no different."


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