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‘Risk of danger to residents’ prompts some Toronto condos to ban Airbnbs amid COVID-19 crisis

‘Risk of danger to residents’ prompts some Toronto condos to ban Airbnbs amid COVID-19 crisis

After years of struggling or failing to stop their buildings from being used as de facto hotels for short-term rental operators, some Toronto condos are finally banning Airbnbs because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

The move comes at a time when most people are isolating in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus while Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms are facing unprecedented numbers of booking cancellations amid global travel bans.

ICE condos at York St. and Lake Shore Blvd. W. and Maple Leaf Square condos on Bremner Blvd. have informed residents that short-term stays are prohibited effective Thursday.

The management of ICE condos said it wouldn’t interfere with anyone currently occupying the building. But all imminent bookings of less than 28 days had to be cancelled and devices being used to access the building by unauthorized residents would be deactivated.

Short-term rentals “present an undue risk of danger to residents and to the short-term rental tenants themselves,” said a notice at Maple Leaf Square.

The move is overdue but welcome, said Thorben Wieditz of Fairbnb, a coalition of academics, community and tenant groups that backed the city’s short-term rental bylaws at a provincial tribunal last fall.

There are residents in buildings around the city who “are up in arms” because condo boards and property managers are suggesting short-term rentals cease but aren’t mandating it,” he said.

Wieditz said residents are telling him, “There are laws on the books, there is a global pandemic, you must cease operations immediately.”

On Tuesday Fairbnb delivered a draft statement of claim to the property manager and condo board of the ICE buildings threatening a $3-million class-action lawsuit because the building wasn’t complying with city zoning bylaws that prohibit short-term rentals in homes that are not the owner’s principal residence.

“To us it seems completely reasonable to take this step to inform condo corporations and their management companies that there are laws on the books and they, at a minimum, must recognize that in their communications to everyone in the building — to say they are illegal and they will take whatever steps necessary to ensure they are not operating,” Wieditz said.

The claim was not registered in court because of COVID-19 closures and it remains unclear if the legal action will go ahead given that ICE has banned short-term rentals, said Fairbnb lawyer Eric Gillespie.

“ICE was the only condominium named (in the suit) but there are dozens of condo corporations that may be in a similar situation. If the response from other condos is similar, that obviously is a huge step in a very good direction, but that’s an unknown right now. We don’t know if the claim is going to proceed with other condominium corporations,” he said.

There is a public health risk in tourist accommodation, said York University environmental studies professor Roger Keil, who co-edited a book about the SARS epidemic called “Networked Disease.”

In 2003, the Hotel Metropole in Hong Kong was the site of a “super spread” event that sent SARS to points across the globe by travellers.

“Hotels are regulated spaces and they are cleaned by professional staff and they are under tight control in terms of public health. We know this is not necessarily the case in the (short-term rental) industry,” he said.

“If you now have thousands of people staying in fairly unregulated spaces shared with regular residents I cannot see how this cannot be a public health concern at the present moment,” Keil said.

“Any kind of virus can come at us quickly and spread very fast depending on how transmission works,” he said.

“This is the world in which we now live and this is a world of high mobility, and Airbnb plays a major role in facilitating this mobility,” Keil said.

The Local Planning Appeal Tribunal last fall upheld the rules approved by the city that were originally to have taken effect nearly two years ago but were delayed by appeals by short-term rental landlords.Get the latest in your inboxNever miss the latest news from the Star, including up-to-date coronavirus coverage, with our free email newslettersSign Up Now

The bylaw is now in effect, a city spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Despite the global travel bans and many Airbnb cancellations from tourists, some are still operating, Wieditz said. Some have been advertised as isolation units, he said.

Property management companies need to follow the law and instruct people properly. They cannot suggest that landlords voluntarily stop the rentals, he said.

A spokesperson for ICE’s property manager, Duka Property Management, said the condo board there had decided to take action before receiving notice of the draft legal claim Tuesday.

Airbnb Canada’s public policy manager, Alex Dagg, said the company recognizes that businesses, corporations and individuals are all going to react differently to the pandemic situation.

“There is no playbook here,” she said.

“There are a lot of people — from medical staff, diplomats that are returning from overseas, international students — who have nowhere to go after their residences have closed. They have been looking for places to stay and our hosts have been able to provide that,” Dagg said.

“We often are hearing from medical professionals who are looking for places to stay. They have to isolate themselves from their families,” she said.

Recovery from the business difficulties that have hit Airbnb amid the pandemic, in addition to a more regulated environment, will be a fierce challenge for the company, said the director of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, professor Frederic Dimanche at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

Like every other company, he said Airbnb is going to take a loss.

It is refunding reservation deposits and it will lose some operators due to their own loss of income, as well as the increasingly regulated business environment, Dimanche said. But he doesn’t think it will be the end of Airbnb.

“I think the business model was so welcome by travellers. There’s definitely a big market for this kind of thing. But it’s all going to be based now on trust. If they are able to establish trust with customers they are going to be doing well and people are going to be travelling again. If they are not able to establish trust with the operators and the customers then it’s going to more complicated.”

Like the cruise industry, Airbnb and other hospitality businesses will also have to fight their way back from an economic recession, Dimanche said. People may want to travel again but they will be watching their spending and potentially choosing domestic destinations.

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