Toronto has registered 2,800 Airbnbs, but some wonder what happened to thousands of others?

February 1, 2021

On December 12, shortly before the city officially launched its new short-term rental licencing rules, Airbnb had 18,553 listings in Toronto. By mid-January,

new restrictions in place, that number still stood at 16,000.

In fact, at the end of January, after the rules have been in place for a month, the number of city-approved Airbnbs sits at about 2,800.

Which raises the question, asked by Fairbnb and others: Why does the rental platform continue to list thousands more homes and rooms that aren’t registered. And does Toronto have the resources to rigorously enforce the regulations that would put some former short-term rentals back into the housing supply?

An analysis of scraped data off the Airbnb website shows the majority of Airbnb landlords are now offering longer-term accommodation, something that is legal by the new rules, says Fairbnb, a coalition of housing advocates, academics, community groups and a hotel company. But other rental listings, it says, are claiming exemptions from the licensing process and, in some cases, landlords appear to be offering multiple listings — neither of which is allowed under Toronto’s bylaw.

The numbers are concerning, said City Councillor Paula Fletcher. She prompted Toronto’s planning and housing committee to request an update to council on the enforcement of the licensing program by the city’s Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) staff on Tuesday.

“We have over 18,000 (Airbnb) listings and so far there are only valid licences for about 2,800,” she said.

The whole point of regulating short-term rentals was to restore some of the housing that was being lost to tourist accommodation, said Fletcher.

“We need to get this to where we anticipated we should be and get a handle right away on licensing these locations and bringing places to the (housing) market,” she said.

“Ottawa only has 3,000 listings, they have nine staff working on that. There are 7,000 listings in San Francisco with seven staff working on that, 50,000 Airbnb listings in New York with 50 staff,” said Fletcher. “This has been a long journey and I don’t think we’re anywhere near the finish line.”

Toronto’s short-term rental program has been allotted five bylaw enforcement officers, a supervisor and four compliance staff. The city is still two or three weeks away from hiring a consultant to do electronic enforcement of listings, said MLS executive director Carleton Grant.

The number of licensed Airbnbs will grow: MLS is still reviewing about 300 landlord applications and it receives up to 20 more each day.

Although the city’s Airbnb regulations only just took effect, it has been three years since city council approved making it mandatory for short-term rentals to be registered with the city.

By 2017 investors were buying up whole homes to make more money on short-term stays than they would earn on longer-term, traditional rentals.

The practice turned entire floors of downtown condos into “ghost hotels” with few permanent residents. Along with the tourists came noise complaints, sometimes criminal activity and, more recently, concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Enforcement has been delayed by appeals from the short-term rental industry and the city’s careful creation of a licensing system that staff say will be fair and enforceable.

Now the only legal short-term rentals are those within the principal residence of a landlord, so investors can no longer advertise multiple properties as short-term rentals. A landlord that wants to rent for periods of less than 28 nights needs a licence to do it.

Airbnb is the only rental platform that has registered under the city’s new regulations. Its closest competitor Expedia has withdrawn from the Toronto market because of the new regulations, a senior executive told the tech website The Logic.

Fairbnb says it is concerned about multiple listings showing the same municipal registration number (in one case the same number showed up on 16 different listings) and hosts claiming licence exemptions that MLS says don’t exist.

But Grant says many of the unlicensed listings on the Airbnb site are legal, including some that are hotels or residences that have more than one landlord under the same address.

Fairbnb says that since the bylaw took effect about 7,000 entire homes or apartments and 4,000 rooms are being offered for periods of 28 nights or more — a positive sign that the new Airbnb bylaw is having an impact, said Fairbnb spokesperson Thorben Wieditz.

But he questions why Airbnb doesn’t purge them from its platform given that reviews on its site suggest very few rentals are for periods of more than 28 nights.

Airbnb says its technology ensures that non-compliant rentals are automatically disabled from booking stays of less than 28 nights. In some cases different listings may show the same host on the site because there are no rules against a property manager handling multiple rentals. That does not, however, exempt a rental from having its own city registration number on the listing.

Fairbnb’s findings are based on data scraped from Airbnb’s website by InsideAirbnb, a New York-based project of data analyst and housing advocate Murray Cox, who provides the information for free.

Its Jan. 11 analysis showed:

  • 12,623 Toronto listings had no permit number and 8,043 of those are for entire homes and apartments
  • 1,348 listings are using a duplicate permit and, of those, 473 are entire homes
  • 317 hosts are claiming they are exempt from the city’s licensing rules

“We hope the city is stepping up its enforcement game and that it will hold Airbnb accountable for allowing hosts to flaunt the rules with fake permits, exemptions, and for safe-harbouring ghost hotels in an extended stay category until the COVID-19 storm is over,” said Wieditz.

Grant says the results of the new program won’t be immediate and, for now, the pandemic is still occupying about half of the city’s bylaw enforcement resources.

“We’re in the early stages of this and there’s a lot for us to work through,” he said. “We expect to learn as we go as we have through the last 10 months with COVID.”

He expects that 95 per cent of Airbnb hosts will follow the new rules and the city will root out those who try to game the system.

But each violation requires thorough investigation. There is no point charging illegal operators if the evidence doesn’t support the charges, he said.

The Airbnb platform is also accountable. It is the company’s responsibility to remove violators and it is in the company’s interest to follow the rules, said Grant.

Airbnb would not comment on the numbers of listings on its platform. But it says it has taken pains to inform its hosts of their obligation to register with the city. The city has a real-time data sharing agreement with the company and Airbnb provides a monthly report on its data.

In a statement, it said that the Airbnb “community” has benefited from regulatory certainty in places like Vancouver, San Francisco and Japan, which have similar rules.

“We expect Toronto to be no different …We look forward to working with the city, and using the playbook we’ve developed in communities around the world to build our community of hosts in Toronto and support the area’s economic recovery,” it said in an email.

Although Airbnb rentals are not allowed under the provincial lockdown rules except for pandemic-related housing needs, Toronto has, nevertheless, received 96 complaints related to short-term rentals this month.

Airbnb said most of the current rentals would likely be travellers who are isolating.

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