Short-term Accommodations — Do We Protect Investors or Quality of Life?

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By John Francis

The Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula has resolved to “do something” about Short-term Accommodations. This is going to be challenging and complicated.
First they need to define the problems STAs are causing. Next, they need to establish a definition of Short-term Accommodations to enable regulation. Then they need to develop a set of regulations to reduce or eliminate the problems. Finally, they need to enforce those regulations.
None of these steps will be easy. The process could easily be stymied and stalled by controversy. But the future of our communities depends on it.
Perhaps it’s best to start by defining the problems.
STA problems break into four broad groups: cultural, physical, health/safety and economic.
Cultural problems are mostly variations on the theme of “inconsiderate”. There is a tendency among people who are renting a property for a day or two to “party hard” — cram as much fun as they can into a short time. This means loud parties, fireworks, oversize bonfires, drunkenness and so forth — things that make life unpleasant for the neighbours and generally spoil the neighbourhood. It’s hard to enjoy your vacation when you are worried that this night’s neighbours might set the bush on fire. The other side of the same coin is occupied by inconsiderate landlords — people who own properties as an investment and don’t care about the impact on the neighbourhood as long as their short-term tenants pay their bills and don’t damage the property. Until recently, short-term visitors were confined to motels and resorts where on-site managers prevented them from disturbing their neighbours, who were, of course, other customers of the same business. With STAs, the landlord is often a distant investor who has no interest in preventing noise and fireworks.
The end result is that the cottagers and residents adjacent to the STAs are prevented — by noise, dust, smoke, worry — from enjoying their properties. They pay just as much in taxes as the Short-term Accommodations. Should they just give up, sell the cottage to an STA investor and buy a place on Manitoulin?
The same STA pattern also causes physical consequences. There are countless tales of cottages with blown-out septic systems that cause a health hazard and pollute adjacent lakes and wetlands. If a septic system was designed to accommodate a family of four, sixty days a year, it will be overloaded if it serves more people over a longer period. If a driveway is built for two vehicles but tonight’s tenants bring six (or invite a bunch of friends to a party), the parking overflows, choking off the street and hampering access for emergency vehicles.
Health and safety concerns come in many sizes and shapes. Short-term rentals are mostly built to residential code. They do not need to meet commercial safety standards — no need for fire escapes or sprinkler systems. They do not need to meet commercial sanitation standards — no inspections or drinking water tests. They do not need to meet commercial wiring or plumbing or waste disposal standards. They do not need to register with the municipality, so nobody even knows who is staying there. This really complicates emergency management — imagine trying to evacuate an area if you have no idea who is staying at any of the properties.
And finally, there are economic issues. Short-term Accommodations tend to require an increased number of bylaw enforcement calls, first responder calls and police calls. All of these end up on everybody’s property tax bill. There is (at present) no way to bill absentee landlords for the infractions committed by their tenants. Short-term Accommodations don’t even pay commercial taxes. They are taxed the same as any owner-occupied house. Many STAs don’t even charge HST.
All of this makes it very hard for motels and resorts to compete. Commercial accommodations have to invest heavily to meet all the construction, health and safety standards, then pay property taxes on all that value at the much higher commercial rate. They have to test their water regularly. They generally have employees on site 24/7 to handle health, safety and noise issues.
Another financial consequence of STAs is a dramatic rise in property values. The value of a property is defined by its potential to generate profit. The profit from short-term rentals is much higher than from long-term rentals. Investors are crowding into the market, which is pushing housing prices out of reach of most people who actually work on the peninsula. Higher housing prices correlate directly with the reduced availability of labour — if people can’t afford to live here, they won’t be available as employees. Many local businesses are reducing their hours because they can’t get staff. Local contractors are having trouble finding carpenters and labourers. Tobermory Harbour is short three staff this summer because nobody applied for the jobs.
On the other side of the story are the property owners who are renting their cottages. Many of them feel it is their right to rent to anyone they choose. What right has a municipality to determine whether, when or to whom they rent their properties?
B&B owners and their supporters argue that B&Bs are not part of the problem, but part of the solution; that with the owners on site, the tenants cause no issues at all.
Many argue that there are few if any problems at cottages that are rented by the week — only at properties that are rented by the night. This might be true but with no registry and no data, it’s all just guesswork.
Supporters point out that STAs increase the community’s capacity on long weekends when everything else is full and that they contribute to the sustainability of other businesses — restaurants, food stores and the retail sector.
That is a summary of the issues MNBP has to deal with. In a lot of ways, it’s a choice between protecting investors and preserving our quality of life. Our Council has to listen to all these points of view and find a way forward.
Think about these issues. Think about your own experience, your own priorities.
Then write a letter to Council or fill out the form online (www.northbrucepeninsula.ca — it’s in the first row of items).