Airbnb operators will need license and inspections
The trend of short-term rental accommodations has exploded in recent years, and West Nipissing is no exception, with over 90 local listings on the Airbnb site alone. This has led to a number of complaints, mainly from neighbours, so the town is looking to draft regulations on short term rentals (STRAs) and the public has been asked for input.
Around 15 people attended a public consultation on Thursday night, October 19th, with roughly 50 messages submitted beforehand to town officials, all weighing in on a proposed by-law that would impose a licensing requirement on operators of STRAs in West Nipissing, as well as make them subject to a series of new rules, inspections, and sanctions should they not comply.
The consultation was presided over by West Nipissing Mayor Kathleen Thorne Rochon, councillors Anne Tessier, Dan Gagné, Kris Rivard and Fern Pellerin, as well as Municipal Clerk and Planner Mélanie Ducharme. The mayor stressed that the process was just starting and all feedback would be discussed at council before any formal decision is made. “This is something that was first brought forward during the last term of council. We haven’t had any in-depth discussion (…) apart from the fact that many councillors have been contacted in regards to this issue (…).This is not necessarily the final thing. By the time council gets through with hearing from residents and having our discussions, there still could be significant changes,” she explained.
As for what prompted the by-law, she acknowledged that neighbour-generated complaints were largely the factor. “There were also some concerns about septic systems on the use of these buildings, but those were also neighbour-complaint generated. (…) It was complaints along the range of things, from neighbourhood compatibility as well as occupancy limits,” said the mayor.
As it is currently written, the by-law would introduce a licensing requirement for anyone operating an STRA in West Nipissing. There are 3 proposed license classes based on zoning and whether the owner lives there or not. Class A and Class C licenses require that the rental also be the owner’s primary dwelling, meaning they need to live on-site. Class B licenses are for units which are not primary dwellings, but they are limited to only C1 (neighbourhood commercial) and C3 (mixed-use commercial) zones. Effectively, this is a strict limitation on who can rent out a secondary dwelling, such as a cottage. Furthermore, licensing applications would require information on the premise being rented, such as floor plans, proof of ownership, as well as an inspection by a municipal officer, such as a building inspector or by-law enforcement officer. Though the dollar amounts were not presented in the draft, fees would also be a part of the licensing process. “Licensing is meant to cover the cost of oversight and enforcement,” assured mayor Thorne Rochon, adding that “There is no net gain for municipal coffers.”
The draft also outlined a “demerit points” system which would be used to enforce compliance. Violating parts of the by-law could earn STRA operators a demerit point, with 3 points lost causing the suspension of their license to operate their rental for one year. Any additional demerit points earned after a suspension would mean their license could be permanently revoked.
Some STRA owners expressed concern over this system, saying that an angry neighbour could perhaps “rack up demerit points” against them by making multiple complaints. However, Ducharme assured that as with normal complaints, a by-law officer would first conduct an investigation before recommending that a demerit point be issued. Furthermore, councillor Kris Rivard suggested a higher threshold for demerit points before suspension, and proposal that after hitting the suspension threshold, an operator’s case would be reviewed by municipal council for the final decision.
The latter suggestion received much positive feedback from the STRA operators in the room, but others felt the measures were not strict enough. Verner resident Debbie Joly was among them. “I find that one point for some of these infractions is a tad lenient. For instance, ‘operating a short-term rental without a license,’ I think you should actually be denied a license after operating without one,” she opined. Another Verner resident, Dora Hoffman, agreed. “When you are living next to this and this affects your life in your home on a repetitive basis, it’s not fun and it has to be dealt with and it has to be regulated,” she said, adding that if someone is a responsible owner, then they shouldn’t be afraid of getting a demerit point.
Both Joly and Hoffman live on the same road in Verner where, for two years, they dealt with an Airbnb unit causing them a host of problems. Joly even wrote a letter to then-councillor Rolly Larabie back in September of 2021, signed by several other people in the area, pleading with the town to regulate short term rentals. The letter mentioned issues of trespassing, cameras on the property which would infringe on their own privacy, conservation and environmental issues due to water being drawn from the lake, noise complaints, and general nuisance. Joly also kept a record of the number of guests that attended on various dates, which sometimes reached up to 10 people, and notes of specific issues and calls made to police. When she submitted the letter, Joly was told that the by-law would be pushed back until a new council was elected, so she is obviously anxious to see it move forward two years later.
Mélanie Ducharme expanded on the purpose of the demerit points system as a deterrent, and the perspective of other municipalities. “They overwhelmingly indicated that the fines are not particularly effective. (…) The risk of losing a license through demerit points is a greater disincentive than just a $100 fine,” she explained, adding that the fines are set by the provincial government so the municipality can’t fix the amounts.
The demerit points system was obviously a point of concern for STRA owners who might lost points due to their renters’ behaviour. They were asked if the mechanisms in place to eject a bad renter from an otherwise good owner’s premise were robust enough for them. Owners shared that there are resources in the Airbnb app for host protection and a review system to weed out bad guests, and they can also install security cameras outside to monitor compliance, plus they have the option to eject a bad guest at will if there is a problem.
STRA operator Regan Thompson said that he and his partner rely on the income of their property and are responsible owners, and wanted to know if the town was “attacking a small problem with a sledgehammer.” He also pointed out the economic benefit of STRAs to the area, while recognizing the criticism faced by STRAs in other places such as Toronto “where it’s actually consuming useable real-estate in some cases where some people might use those as family dwellings. In West Nipissing, I don’t think that’s quite the case. I think we’re talking about cottages, and we’re talking about regular blue-collar people who, in order to afford cottages, have to rely on this rental income in order to do so in many cases.”