Sunday, February 25, 2024

Council Has Made Short-Term Rentals Their Top Priority, but Should it Be?

After being elected in October of last year, the seven members of Meaford’s council established their priorities for this four-year term, and topping their list is short-term rentals, an issue that this and the previous council have heard complaints about from a handful of residents over the past few years.

This month, council got the ball rolling, and they have given direction to staff to work toward developing a licencing bylaw for short-term rentals. Throughout the discussions about the issue during last week’s council meeting, councillors made clear that this is their top priority, and they want to move quickly, as quickly as possible to establish a licencing bylaw.

Some I have spoken to have expressed confusion about council’s clear sense of urgency on this issue, when there are other issues that many consider far more important. Roads and bridges in need of repair, the lack of affordable housing, the pumped storage proposal, our crumbling public swimming pool, the badly needed renovation of our arena, are just some of the issues that residents have suggested to me should be of higher priority to our council than short-term rentals.

Our council however believes that short term rentals is their most pressing issue, their top priority. Some have pointed to the fact that there have been just 12 complaints filed through the municipal bylaw office related to short-term rentals in the past three years, suggesting that council has prioritized solving a problem that isn’t really a common problem, while others agree with council that this should be their most pressing issue.

So council now has staff marching down the road toward developing a licencing bylaw for short-term rentals, with a goal set by council to have a bylaw in place before the end of this year. An incredibly short period of time for such a complex issue.

While many of us are a little baffled that this is considered the top priority by council, the reality is that most of us have never been subjected to wild parties at a home in our neighbourhood that is not lived in by its owner, but instead rented out for short periods using one of the online short-term rental services. It is no doubt frustrating to have an issue with a neighbour, but no neighbour to discuss the issue with.

As I wrote in February of 2020:

The house across the road from you has recently sold, you haven’t met your new neighbours, but you’ve seen some contractor vehicles parked outside, and you assume that the new property owner is doing some renovations before moving in. A few weeks later there are four cars in the driveway, the next week three different cars, and the following weekend a dozen vehicles spilling out of the driveway and onto your road, music is blaring, and the nice house across the road has turned into a party house. Welcome to short-term rentals.

Not all short-term rental properties become party houses of course, most never cause any problem at all, but they all have the potential to do so; all it takes is just one bad booking, and an entire neighbourhood can find itself frustrated.

An issue to be addressed, certainly, but a top priority for a council in a community facing a multi-billion dollar pumped storage proposal, and a tsunami of new development on the way? I am not convinced.

I don’t have an issue with licencing short-term rentals, I think it makes sense to have a handle on how many exist in the community, and to establish some ground rules. But licencing is not going to solve the problems that have been expressed by the handful of residents who have brought their complaints to council.

Enforcement will solve those problems, but enforcement costs money, lots of money, so brace yourselves for the eventual revelation of what it will cost to protect this community from the evils of short-term rentals; it won’t be trivial, of that I am certain.

While it is important to listen to those who have had negative experiences with a short-term rental in their neighbourhood, it is also important to give equal time to hearing from supporters.

The reality is that this municipality has long fancied itself as a tourist destination, a place where city folk can escape the madness and relax on the shore of Georgian Bay, but we have a serious lack of places for visitors to stay. Anyone who has tried to find accommodation for family or friends who are coming for a visit will know well the lack of options for visitors to this supposed tourist destination. A few motels and bed & breakfasts do not meet the need, and so short-term rentals have become popular here, just as they have throughout the world over the past decade.

The process set in motion by council last week will require public input, and I would advise all, whether you are vehemently opposed to short-term rentals, or if you support them, to get involved.

As is often the case, I do not envy our members of council, as this, like many issues, is one of complexity and nuance, and it can easily be guided more by the loudest voices to reach council rather than by data and facts. But council themselves have chosen to prioritize this issue above all others, so I won’t feel much sympathy for them as this process progresses.

When I first wrote about short-term rentals in 2020, there were roughly 50 such properties to be found in this municipality on the various websites for short-term rental services: today there are more than 200, yet the problem properties are few, so few that I suspect that most reading this have never had an experience themselves, nor do they know anyone who has had a problem with a short-term rental in their neighbourhood. It is a problem for the small number of people who have had the bad fortune to have a party house move into their neighbourhood, and that is a problem to be taken seriously, but it should not be the top priority of a council of seven elected to serve 11,000, in a community with a host of pressing issues, many carrying far more weight and potential consequences than some issues with loud parties and too many cars parked outside a residence.

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