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COVID-19 could mark the end of Toronto’s Airbnb era, and good riddance. Here’s how to keep it that way.

By Matt Elliott Contributing Columnist Tues., March 31, 2020

Big number: 7,300 — the number of entire-home Airbnb listings in Toronto according to a February report by advocacy group Fairbnb. COVID-19 is prompting many landlords to convert Airbnb listings to long-term rentals.

Listen close and you can almost hear the Airbnb alarm bells ringing across Toronto.

The COVID-19 pandemic is laying waste to the city’s market for short-term rentals, like those offered by Airbnb and other online services. It began quickly. Just days after our governments started restricting travel, a Reddit user noticed a sudden spike in the number of condos listed for rent in the downtown area, with most advertised as furnished. The number of listings keeps growing.

As a prime example, take a look at the ICE Condo complex at York Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, where more than 20 per cent of its 1,341 units have been listed on Airbnb. Last year, it took the crown as the property to have received the most complaints related to short-term rentals. Now it’s seen more than 50 units go up for rent in the last two weeks, as landlords scramble to replace revenue streams and find long-term tenants. The condo board has also decided to ban all short-term rentals until the state of emergency is resolved. A ghost hotel busted.

Many of these units were illegal under Toronto’s new short-term rental regulations anyway. Those regulations, set to go into full implementation this spring, effectively ban the practice of buying a condo to list on Airbnb. Only principal residences will be permitted as short-term rentals, and entire-home rentals will be capped at 180 nights a year. But enforcement was always a thorny question. The pandemic, it seems, is lending a hand, pushing many Airbnb hosts to bail out and look for actual tenants.

And at risk of finding a silver lining to this godawful and tragic pandemic, I’ll say it: it would be a good thing if it forces more landlords to rent their units instead of listing them on Airbnb.

I wasn’t always down on Airbnb. I’ve used the service to visit other cities, and I have nothing against the notion of making a few bucks by renting your home a few weekends a year. But in the years since it came to Toronto, short-term rentals have mutated into something that actively harms the city.

In February, anti-Airbnb group Fairbnb published an analysis suggesting there are more than 7,300 entire-home listings that likely violate Toronto’s rules. That’s 7,300 potential homes rendered unavailable to a city in desperate need of more housing. And the numbers, the report noted, were growing — up 13.5 per cent in a single year.

Beyond the numbers, the explosion of the number of short-term rentals has had a negative effect on neighbourhoods. I’ve experienced this myself. Until recently, my neighbour was a lovely Irish woman whose only sin was watching “Coronation Street” with the volume cranked up. But last summer she was replaced with a revolving door of Airbnb guests, many of whom have used the place as a party house — shaking the walls of our rowhouse with all-night EDM tracks. I liked Corrie Street better.

Giving over part of the city’s housing market to short-term rentals was a mistake, and it’s time to rectify it. Part of that will be enforcing — and strengthening — the rules. Another part will be offering alternatives. The city’s hotel supply needs to improve.

A recent report by the Toronto Region Board of Trade found Toronto added just 124 net new hotel rooms between 2013 and 2018 — a 0.5 per cent increase — while the number of visitors to Toronto over the same period increased by 17 per cent. With hotel rooms scarce and pricey, of course there was going to be demand for alternatives like Airbnb.

But the status quo that emerged wasn’t acceptable. Not in a city with a housing crisis. When Toronto does emerge from the other side of this pandemic, the city should think about ways to incentivize hotel construction that creates affordable space for visitors and tourists. We’ll need them to build up the economy. But space for visitors should never again come at the cost of places for Torontonians to live.

Matt Elliott

Matt Elliott is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist for the Star.

Follow him on Twitter: @GraphicMatt