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Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Airbnb, Vrbo listings abound in Ontario

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Though Ontario and Quebec have restricted short-term rentals as part of broader government efforts to encourage physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, popular platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo have continued to list thousands of units for rent in both provinces, some in shared rooms and some for large groups. 

The new government restrictions are part of broader efforts to keep people from travelling and to encourage physical distancing. Under Ontario’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, short-term rentals are currently only permitted for people “in need of housing during the emergency period.” The order was effective starting April 4 and has been extended to May 12.

Talking Point

Ontario and Quebec have restricted short-term rentals as part of broader government efforts to encourage physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. But popular platforms Airbnb and Vrbo continue to list thousands of units for rent in both provinces, some for as little as one night and in shared rooms, and some for large groups. The lack of enforcement may reflect broader challenges governments face in regulating Airbnb and other platforms.

However, a search of listings on Airbnb shows the platform has continued to offer accommodations in Ontario for as little as one night and in shared spaces with strangers, as well as units that can accommodate large groups. In Toronto, for example, the platform listed 29 available stays for one guest in shared rooms for the weekend of May 1, and 57 houses in the city for groups of 16 or more guests, as of publication. 

An Airbnb listing captured on Sunday, April 26, 2020. This image has been lightly edited to remove personal identification.

In total, Airbnb had more than 300 spaces for rent in Toronto and Ottawa for a single guest; Kitchener-Waterloo had 212 and London had 248 spaces available. The platform had 297 active listings Muskoka and 267 in Kawartha Lakes for the weekend of May 1, despite local mayors and Canada’s chief public health officer asking urban dwellers to stay out of cottage country to avoid spreading the virus and overwhelming regional health facilities and other services.

Alex Dagg, Airbnb’s public policy director for Canada, did not say whether or how the firm was complying with Ontario’s order and ensuring hosts only rent to people in need during the pandemic. “Leisure travel should not occur right now and we have encouraged our host and guest community to follow all restrictions,” said Dagg in an email to The Logic. The company said it is also sending regular communications to hosts with a link to a travel restriction directory page, which is being updated in real time to reflect new orders.

Vrbo, an Airbnb competitor owned by Expedia Group, has hundreds of bookings available in Ontario, including 129 in Ottawa and 150 in Toronto. The company did not respond to The Logic’s request for comment. 

Meanwhile, in Quebec, Airbnb listings have dropped to nearly zero. Rather than leaving it to hosts to remove their own listings, the firm has proactively blocked their calendars for the restricted period. “Airbnb has complied fully with Quebec’s regulations,” said Dagg. 

Vrbo continues to advertise units for the restricted period in Quebec, despite the all-out ban. As of publication, it had 169 Quebec City listings, 184 in Montreal and 229 stays available in the Eastern Townships for May 1 weekend.

The inconsistency of enforcement may reflect broader challenges governments face in regulating Airbnb and other platforms, according to one expert.

“From a regulatory perspective, it’s incredibly challenging to understand who’s in charge, and it absolutely works in Airbnb’s favour in this case,” said Shauna Brail, director and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s urban studies program.

In Ontario, for example, the municipalities regulate short-term rentals; in Quebec, the province has more oversight. And while the onus to comply with local laws tends to fall to the hosts who rent their properties through the platforms, that also varies by jurisdiction.

An Airbnb listing captured on Sunday, April 26, 2020. This image has been lightly edited to remove personal identification.

Praveen Senthinathan, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, told The Logic that local police and provincial offences officers have authority to enforce the short-term rental restrictions, but did not say whether they have done so. “We expect property owners to take the necessary steps to ensure that they are following the Emergency Order and the advice of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health,” said Senthinathan. “We would encourage the public to contact their local police service or municipality should they encounter a business or individual that is potentially violating the emergency orders.”

Violating the rule can result in a $750 fine. The province also has the authority to pursue charges under the Provincial Offences Act, said Senthinathan. “In that case, if convicted the penalty could be a fine of not more than $100,000 and for a term of imprisonment of not more than one year. Corporations can also be prosecuted under Part III and, if convicted, the penalty could be up to $10 million.” 

Nancy Aucoin, a spokesperson for Quebec’s tourism ministry, told The Logic that platforms have been important partners in implementing the directive. Aucoin did not say how the province is enforcing the measure, but noted that hosts are ultimately responsible for complying with it; violating the order can lead to a fine of $1,000 to $6,000. 

Brail said Quebec’s directive may be easier to enforce because of short-term rental laws already in place in the province: unlike Ontario, Quebec requires all hosts to register with the province before listing a rental property on a platform. Nancy Aucoin, a spokesperson for Quebec’s tourism ministry, did not say whether the province is using that database to enforce its emergency order. 

And while Quebec’s order bans all short-term rental accommodations during the restricted period, Ontario’s is more ambiguous, leaving room for hosts to rent to guests they deem “in need” during the pandemic. “The language is very easily open to interpretation, especially when you’re dealing with firms behaving as disruptors, of which Airbnb is one,” said Brail.

While operating its main platform, Airbnb has launched a separate service for health-care and other frontline workers who need a place to isolate themselves during the pandemic. The company requires guests using the service to answer a questionnaire about their job and provide their employee identification number. Hosts participating in the program must commit to “enhanced cleaning protocols.” 

The company, which had planned to go public this year, has been throttled by the COVID-19 pandemic. It cut its internal valuation by 16 per cent early this month, as cancellations surged and bookings dropped by as much as 96 per cent in some markets. It’s asked governments, including Ottawa, for bailout money and tax breaks to compensate hosts, to whom it plans to pay out US$250 million for lost bookings. In the meantime, institutional investors and private equity firms have stepped in with a combined US$2 billion to backstop the company. 

The firm is lobbying both the Ontario and Quebec governments to amend their responses to COVID-19. In an April 22 registration, the firm reported “communicating with the Government of Ontario about regulatory reform and tax relief for individual members of the host community, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” In Quebec, lobbyists for the company asked for officials to modify their restrictions on short-term rentals and allow Airbnb to rent to essential workers and people who might need space to isolate. They also asked the province for tax relief for hosts. 

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