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Community Soapbox: Short-term rentals

Photo by Rick Couper.

For the past five years, my children and I have opened our home to short-term rental guests. Our endeavour started as a necessity, to supplement our struggling finances, and evolved into a means for my son to pay his way through college.  During this time, our guests have shared their stories, joined us on adventures, and looked to us as a valuable resource while settling into their new neighbourhoods. We also created a network of other quality short-term rental hosts who we could reach out to for assistance from time to time. We experimented with our booking requirements to find a model which suited our schedules and limited our exposure to unsavoury guests. For the past year, I have been living part time in short-term accommodations in the Niagara Region, while looking for a new home. As both hosts and guests, we’ve learned a lot about short-term rentals.  After completing the City of Kingston’s Short-term Rental Licensing survey, I was left feeling like Council may need further information prior to making bylaw decisions.

We should all remember that while online marketing platforms such as AirBnb, VRBO, and HomeAway are relatively new, the concept of home-sharing has existed since Kingston started building homes, and probably before then with our Indigenous friends. Home-sharing creates a valuable micro economy, bringing money from outside of the city into Kingstonian’s hands to be used to pay mortgages, property taxes, buy groceries and other living expenses – While large chain hotel profits are generally diverted outside of Kingston to shareholders. Marriott International Inc. for example, boasts profits of just under $2 billion, of which stock holders received a quarterly dividend of $0.48 USD per share.

As hosts, we get to learn about cultures from all over the world, and are always thrilled when guests share their languages and cooking with us.  I did my best to raise my children in an inclusive home, this was easier to put into practice when we were welcoming people from all walks of life. Sometimes guests behave outside of ‘western’ expectations, and we take these opportunities to reflect and research and understand their culture’s norms. Most often we are shocked not by poor behaviour, but by the generosity and kindness of our guests. Once, after a particularly gruelling day at work, I returned home to find a family from France had prepared a full buffet of delicious food and wine. It was a spectacular treat! Another guest mailed us a package of bamboo socks from her family’s business in South Korea with a very lovely thank-you card. During our interaction with her, we didn’t feel we had done anything extraordinary to deserve such a present, but in her note, she expressed gratitude for our warm welcome and the help we provided while she looked for long-term housing.

Home-sharing guests receive a multitude of services beyond that available at traditional hotels.  We have walked dogs, babysat children, recommended long-term housing options, edited resumes, adjusted job interview wardrobes, made connections, lent tools, stored and moved furniture, hauled boats, and cheered at various competitions; all included in our affordable nightly rates which are much less than any hotel in Kingston.  After exhausting ourselves hosting single night guests, we learned that home-sharing provided a far more meaningful interaction for both parties when we set the minimum stay to three nights. This change shifted our focus from tourists taking the opportunity to stop a night on their way to Montreal or Toronto, to business travellers, contract construction workers, medical students, locals needing transition housing, and new neighbours moving to Kingston. Selfishly, we prefer having the opportunity to build more meaningful relationships with our guests.

For a while, we converted a beautiful and sentimental home in the Queen’s area from a student rental into a short-term rental accommodation. This was the house I raised my children in when I was putting myself through Queen’s. As a student rental, we did our best to provide quality accommodations, however, the constant damage the house sustained made for a very difficult financial situation, part of what caused us to take on short-term rentals in our home. One year it cost me $30,000, and two months of my own labour, to make the house habitable again, with no help from insurance. Unfortunately the poor behaviour around the university during the school year made it difficult to welcome quality short-term guests. During our last year with this house, we had a mix of student tenants during the school year and short-term tenants during the summer. After the last set of poorly behaved student tenants, we decided the damage and constant clean up wasn’t worth the effort, and we sold that house this past spring.

As a guest, I have seen and felt the difference between renting a space in someone’s home, and renting from professional organizations.  The quality of our accommodations have been higher in situations where the owner is living at the same property. As a newcomer to the Niagara Region, I am indebted to the hosts who have given me tips about where to live, shop and explore, who have shared meals and Popsicles on their back decks. Of the home-sharing style hosts, I’m proud to say I remain friends will all of the hosts we have stayed with during our year-long

AirBnb journey. Professional hosts are abundant in the Niagara area and can offer lightning-fast communication regarding the accommodations, but they are not able to provide the warm welcome, open arms (great hosts are huggers!), or local knowledge so many of us find valuable. In general, we’ve found the places we rented from professional organizations lacked necessary amenities, and sometimes lacked cleanliness. Pride of ownership plays a big role in quality short-term rentals.

Our new town of Port Colborne is similar to Kingston in its struggle with long-term rental vacancy shortages, need for affordable housing, and sky-rocketing housing costs. Situated at the beginning of the Welland Canal, this small town is a popular tourist destination, but has no traditional hotels. Port Colborne has a short-term rental licensing program in place, which requires the property owner to live onsite. I think this requirement provides a good balance of enabling its taxpayers to earn a supplemental income by offering necessary short-term accommodations, while limiting the conversion of housing stock to short-term rentals by professional organizations.

In deciding how and whether to licence short-term rentals, I hope Council remembers that there has always been, and will always be a need for this type of accommodation. Short-term rentals generate imported income for the city, and fill a gap between hotel rooms and long term rentals. Home-sharing hosts are the welcome wagon for newcomers to our city and provide valuable services to help guests transition to new schools, jobs and homes.  If the intent of any licensing program is to protect long-term rental stock, then Council should focus efforts on reducing the number of professional short-term rental providers operating in the city and protect those of us who are sharing our homes in order to supplement tight budgets.

– Chrystal Wilson

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