Airbnb: To Snitch Or Not Snitch?
Shawn Micallef: It took me a while to realize my neighbour was running an Airbnb across the hall in my rental building.
It’s a slow thing to notice. There are longer hellos and goodbyes at the door, suggestions to go to the ROM, and one morning three guys came out with an empty case of beer and suitcases.
There’s only so much you can glean from overhearing the occasional interaction through a door and what the peephole reveals. “Peep” is such an accusatory word: it’s my innocent fish-eye look out into the public corridor. Further poking around on the Airbnb site revealed rentals that match my building.
An Airbnb next door is not an imminent crisis by any means, but when I mentioned it to a friend, he said, “You’ve got to report that!” Not only do unauthorized short-term rentals violate the lease agreement, they eat into Toronto’s precious rental stock. If my neighbour is renting her place out full time, it takes a relatively affordable unit off the market.
A study published in September by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called “Nobody’s Business: Airbnb in Toronto” said Airbnb is constraining the city’s supply of housing and even threatens the hotel business and character of neighbourhoods.
Recently, Toronto’s municipal licensing and standards department charged owners of three homes on Bleecker St. with zoning violations for allegedly running short-term rental businesses at properties that aren’t their full-time homes. This last bit is the crux of the Airbnb problem: Is it a business or is it just a way to make extra cash?
Cities have complicated economies and, unless comfortably wealthy, we all have strategies to make living in one possible. Friends who want to travel will sublet their apartments for months at a time, but eventually return home. Others at the more marginal end of the economic spectrum will couch-surf or stay with somebody they’re dating a few weekends a month and let out their apartment on Airbnb to help make rent.
They still exist, but in the past, boarding houses run by a live-in owner were much more prevalent. When a great-aunt of mine arrived in Toronto from Nova Scotia after the Second World War, she found a room catering to young single women like her, venturing out on their own, at Eden Place near Queen and Bathurst Sts.
Corinna Prior, a researcher at Ryerson University studying the ways digital technologies are altering the city, is using Airbnb as a case study. She told me the story is more complicated than often represented: “It’s definitely causing problems in terms of affordable housing, but it’s also a way for new immigrants to land in cities with a difficult rental market and begin to get established.”
That sounds like the way my aunt arrived in Toronto in the 1940s. Prior also said she’s read reports of Airbnb hosts squatting in office buildings or sleeping in closets to make extra cash and cope with rising housing costs.
When travelling, my own preference is stay in a hotel, the bigger the better; there is nothing like the anonymous sovereignty of your own room in another city where nobody oversees your comings and goings. However, I’ve stayed at a handful of Airbnbs in the U.S. and farther afield when travelling with friends who have the inclination and knack to dig up good places. It’s mostly been great and the apartments and houses were usually in vacation areas. Airbnb just made the rental process easier.
Still, the loft on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that we rented from the family who lived next door wasn’t how Airbnb should work ideally, and the apartment we rented from a nice-seeming fellow in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood, thinking it was his apartment, was really one of a number he rents. We never met him, just a woman he hired to give us the keys, his friendly avatar the front for a business.
So, it’s complicated. My peephole hasn’t revealed much more activity across the hall, and the rare time I’ve bumped into my neighbour she’s been friendly, even saying hi to my dog, so I’m not going to be an Airbnb snitch any time soon. Maybe she’s just trying to make it in this expensive city, too, but all of this is a reason to closely watch how cities like Toronto grapple with regulating this new technology.
Source: Shawn Micallef With The Star