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EDITORIAL: Passing the buck

The site of a micro-unit apartment complex on Upper Prince. Neighbourhood residents were shocked to find that the owner of the property plans on renting to a mix of students and Airbnb tenants.
The site of a micro-unit apartment complex on Upper Prince. Neighbourhood residents were shocked to find that the owner of the property plans on renting to a mix of students and Airbnb tenants. - Stu Neatby

Isn’t this a perfect opportunity to address the Airbnb issue under bylaw control?

More and more attention is being directed towards Airbnbs and their connection with housing issues in the greater Charlottetown area. Airbnbs are cited as part of the reason for high rents, an almost zero vacancy rate and the housing shortage affecting the capital region.

Tenants believe they are at risk as landlords opt for higher, short-term gains. Short-term accommodations like Airbnbs pose problems for students, newcomers and low to middle income Islanders looking for affordable accommodations. There is obviously a strong market because the number of Airbnbs and their ilk is growing rapidly. There is concern when apartment complexes and buildings under construction are converting to Airbnbs.

Based on other Canadian cities, regulations are necessary and inevitable to protect tenants and control rental costs. It’s a civic issue elsewhere but on P.E.I., jurisdiction is in dispute. Both the City of Charlottetown and provincial government have chosen to ignore the problem and seem content to point accusing fingers back and forth. The city suggests it’s restrained by provincial regulations while the province says the city has the authority under its bylaws to regulate Airbnbs.

With elections looming this November in all municipalities, and a provincial election not far away, its seems that everyone is trying their best to ignore the Airbnb hot potato. Instead of offering some assurances for renters and guidelines for developers, we see the two jurisdictions seemingly content to allow the market to determine where this issue goes.

Charlottetown’s zoning regulations state the city has control over the purposes for which land, buildings and structures in any zone may be used; as well as the standards to which land use and buildings must conform. It seems fairly straightforward - it’s a city issue.

Charlottetown is about to amend its zoning regulations to include a separate heritage preservation bylaw. Some members of council want to defer passage to include regulations on accessory apartments. Isn’t this a perfect opportunity to address the Airbnb issue under bylaw control?

Planning staff is proposing amendments for accessory apartments to create more affordable housing opportunities. Yet, the city seems to be ignoring the growing elephant in the room. Why can’t amendments be crafted now to address concerns about short-term rentals – to satisfy landlords and developers, and protect tenants?

Charlottetown needs only to look at Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal where bylaws are now in place to regulate Airbnbs. This is not a new or unique problem. Rural Victoria-By-The-Sea has addressed the Airbnb issue, yet Charlottetown is trying its best to ignore it.

Vancouver’s new regulations to cut down on the number of homes rented out to tourists on the website Airbnb appear to be working.

The city says the number of listings on Airbnb has fallen from 6,600 in April to 3,742 after the new rules came into effect on September 1.

The new rules stipulate that homeowners can only offer their primary residences for short-term rental on the site and they must have a $49-a-year licence to do so. Rental prices in Vancouver do appear to have stabilized so Toronto and Montreal are following suite.

Charlottetown says its hands are tied because there are currently no bylaws that oblige the owner to rent brand-new units to long-term tenants. Really? Then change the bylaw. The province asks how can it be a provincial issue because P.E.I.’s Rental of Residential Property Act does not restrict owners from renting properties on Airbnb or similar third-party websites. Really? Then amend the legislation.

The Airbnb issue seems like the perfect assignment for Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee, the province’s new special adviser on its housing action plan. Mayor Lee must realize this is a city issue – but the province could offer some assistance. He’s in an ideal position to bring both sides together and get this problem solved - with affordable housing for Islanders as the guiding principle for joint action.

The city and province must stop passing the buck and take joint action.

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