Depending on which side of the divide you’re standing on, Prince Edward County council’s decision to adopt an Official Plan Amendment and zoning bylaw that will regulate short term rental accommodations is either a well-thought-out and needed response to the exploding tourist rental market and a partial solution to the affordable housing issue or a knee-jerk and ham-fisted reaction to a problem that doesn’t exist and will only serve to punish those that are renting much-needed space to summer time visitors.
And there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground for either side to meet.
In what was surely one of the longest committee of the whole meetings in the history of the municipality at nearly five hours in length, the committee voted to approve an amended official plan zone amendment and zoning bylaw that will regulate where and how new short-term accommodations (STAs) can operate.
Under the changes, existing STAs will be able to operate as they have in the past regardless of density ratios or zoning concerns provided the title of the accommodations stay with the current owner.
In a twist, a recommendation by municipal staff regarding the licencing of STAs in Prince Edward County was withdrawn from the original draft package tabled to the public earlier this month and deferred to the first quarter of 2019.
Staff requested more time examine a roll-out of the regulatory licencing process.
In an overview to the package that was amended from the public rollout earlier this month, director of community development and strategic initiatives Neil Carbone explained the changes to the OPA and zoning bylaw.
Carbone said the municipality started examination of a potential answer to the STA question in 2017 and since beginning the process in earnest, there had been extensive public input opportunities including surveys, two public input sessions in July, a public committee meeting at the Highline Hall in September where the draft official plan amendment, bylaw and licencing mechanisms were introduced and a feedback mechanism offered.
The three regulatory mechanisms presented Sept. 10 proposed a maximum density of 15 per cent of existing dwellings for all STAs and defined zones where STAs could be permitted.
Urban and rural zones would have measurements to more accurately calculate the 15-per-cent threshold.
Principal residence STAs like bed-and-breakfasts are exempted from the density ratios.
The proposed amendments also included site-specific bylaws for STAs with five or more bedrooms and set occupancy limits, parking space and amenity requirements.
The licencing piece set standards on fire and safety measures, addressed the transferability of licences as well as administration of the program, enforcement and fines.
Carbone explained the licensing bylaw was a vital and key part of the entire package however it was not being recommended for passage at Thursday’s meeting.
“This was the issue that provided the most feedback to staff and council and delaying this portion allows staff an opportunity to further refine and plan for implications for moving forward with something that is relatively new,” Carbone said. “The recommendation to delay the licensing should not be interpreted as either not required of not of importance. The licensing is definitely required to ensure the programming is comprehensive and addresses the issues identified and the objectives, specifically those operational and regulatory issues that were identified in our consultations.”
In amending the motion that was passed on Thursday, council called for staff to return with a bylaw regulating licensing STAs within the first quarter of 2019.
A mix of opinions on a number of issues including where STAs should be permitted and if STAs truly eroded the stock of affordable housing in Prince Edward County were voiced in the latest round of public input but Carbone said the input following the committee meeting earlier this month showed there was general support for some regulations including occupancy.
Some urged caution on restrictions on the number of non-owner occupied STAs and caution to ensure growth or economic activity generated by these short- term rental units was not restricted.
Parking and occupancy were other issues brought up through the input process and all these concerns precipitated some changes to the draft package that was presented to the public Sept. 10.
Carbone added the grandfathering provisions applied to legal non-conforming STAs.
“The proposal in front of you today are generally applicable to new STAs only, they are not applicable to existing STAs,” Carbone said
However most aspects of licencing and property standards regulation would be generally applicable to existing STAs Carbone added.
All told, nearly two dozen people rose to speak either in favour or against council adopting the official plan amendments and zoning bylaw on Thursday.
In her deputation to council, Lorna MacDonald said it was mystifying to her fellow members of the Prince Edward Affordable Housing Working Group how some people fail to see the link between the proliferation of STAs and the issue of affordable housing.
MacDonald said affordable rental units, market value units, and houses that are affordable to buy are all being taken out of the market and turned into short-term rental units and that those with modest incomes who want to buy houses in Prince Edward County cannot find adequate or affordable homes to buy.
“Others who want or need to rent cannot find affordable rental accommodations because there is nothing available. Very few new ones are being built,” MacDonald said.
While much verbiage has been paid to the issue of affordable housing in Prince Edward County in recent years, MacDonald said her group have been battling the lack of attainable dwellings for the people living in the margins for 14 years.
MacDonald pointed to the Airbnb stats that indicate there are over 1,000 spaces available for short term rent in the county currently but added there were likely far more that are advertised through social media, word-of-mouth, other short-term rental sites.
Even with only a portion of the numbers, the total being discussed equalled a significant portion of the houses in the county.
“What these numbers mean in terms of percentage is that roughly 1 in 10, or 10 per cent of the private dwellings in Prince Edward County are being used as short-term rental accommodation. We don’t even know the extent of this and it may very well be higher. We do know that the number has tripled with in the past year and a half,” MacDonald added.
The AHWG chair said regulations must be put in place as soon as possible to address this situation. Left unchecked, even in the time it takes to form and educate a new council, the numbers will be even higher.
“The Prince Edward Affordable Housing Working Group questions why anyone would oppose the county professionals who have been working diligently on this issue for over two years, commissioned consultants, have done extensive public consultation, including a survey that was answered by 1,500 respondents and who have also explained the details and intricacy to you, the experienced sitting council. It is important to remember that these regulations will not deny anyone who currently offers short-term accommodation the opportunity to continue to do so,” she added.
Beth Easton spoke on behalf of the newly formed Short Term Accommodation Association of Prince Edward County and said that owning an STA allowed her to return to her family’s home community
Easton provided a deputation on behalf of the group’s 148 members, 74 per cent of whom are Prince Edward County residents.
Easton explained the association was concerned about the previously proposed STA regulations as presented and asked that the regulations be significantly modified on a timetable appropriate to the width, breadth and significance of the issue so that more input from stakeholders could be gathered.
She added her group remains committed to working with the County to address legitimate concerns surrounding STAs in the municipality.
Easton shared excerpts from the membership explaining why the owners and operators had this form of commercial undertaking to rent a residence on a weekly basis.
Most of the excerpts told a similar tale of both lifelong county residents and newcomers as well as expats that eyed an opportunity to invest in the growing tourism market by offering STAs to visitors after significant time, planning and renovations were undertaken.
Easton also discussed the role of an STA income plays into the owner/operators’ day-to-day lives and how it was helping to secure long-term financial stability in post-retirement scenarios.
People who risked life savings, changed career paths to be incounty and offered quiet and respectful families summer-time accommodations was common refrain among the 65 STAAPEC members who made submissions.
“STA owners wanted to tell council their stories, to help you better understand why STAs matter to learn about the dreams they have for themselves and their families and the love they have for the county and how it’s a past, present and future home for many,” Easton said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Councillor Treat Hull commended Easton on the creation of the association and presenting the views on Thursday organizing rapidly.
Hull wondered if the members in the association aware that they are all grandfathered and, in, that sense, the impotence of the income will be protected.
Easton responded: “While most of the members are current owners and operators, there are members in the gallery who are in the process of building and finishing their properties under the understanding of the business we can conduct so while that’s terrific for us, some of us want to see this type of community and economical development be maintained. We are very interested in all of the terms (of the official plan amendment and bylaw) even if for me personally, the grandfathering works well.”
Councillor Bill Roberts quoted a couple of findings from FairBNB, a affordable housing coalition that blames the loss of affordable housing stock on the invasion of short-term rentals into neighbourhoods in cities all over the world.
In Toronto, FairBNB’s extensive research has concluded that permitting STA companies unregulated access to rental home supply undermines both Ontario’s and Toronto’s affordable housing strategies and the elimination of long term rental stock contributes greatly to the affordable housing crisis in the city.
Allowing AirBNB access to secondary suites allows home owners to move their suites from the long=term market, particularly in areas where Airbnb rentals are most lucrative.
Easton attempted to answer on behalf of the association and said the current Landlord-Tenant Act was a barrier for most of the owners for offering their properties to long-term renters.
“Some of us see the Landlord-Tenant Act as too much of a barrier to risk the investment in the property It’s not a viable option under the current legislation,” Easton said, adding this matter was something that needed to be addressed at a both a municipal and provincial matter.
Roberts said this council wanted to make fact and evidence based decisions and believed County staff had complied it but it was clear the STAAPEC believe that the surveys, public input sessions and lengthy public meetings haven’t provided staff with enough evidence yet.
“We would welcome that which is why we ask for a delay,” Easton said, pointing the 1,500 STA surveys submitted to the county.
“I would challenge the weight of that evidence as would others knowing that the majority of those surveys were not completed,” Easton said.
She added that in the STAAPEC’s view, staff had not fully examined the best practices and processes in other communities and there was much still to be gleaned.
“There has not been sufficient time to look at the evaluation and long term impact of regulations and licensing Easton said. “We welcome evidence-based decision making and we would welcome that going forward.”
Current Toronto resident, STA owner and hopeful future Picton resident Barb Mason came to council begging forgiveness on Thursday because she represented a much bigger problem than STAs for Prince Edward County.
“You have done such a lovely job of marketing yourselves as a wonderful community full of warmth, compassion, food-to-table and being something that someone from Toronto wants,” Mason said.
A Leaside resident for over 50 years, Mason said the development from foreign investment is driving her and many people like her out of their former home communities in the GTA and in search of small-town Ontario living.
And she’s not alone.
“I want everything that you have and I want to desperately help you protect everything that you have. It’s why I’m coming here,” Mason said, explaining she bought a home and is operating an STA for now, hoping for a permanent move in 24 months.
Mason said a “very big tsunami” is coming to the county and its much bigger than the STA issue.
“My little neighbourhood has tripled in size. Little Leaside with 3,600 hundred homes…there will be over 4,000 condos built in the next five years. I want to know my neighbour, have something in common with them, invite them over for dinner,” Mason added.
But foreign investment from all over the planet and rapidly exploding populations are ending a sense of community in areas around the GTA and are eliminating (or will eliminate) a known sense of community.
As an STA owner, Mason applauded all the efforts that have been made so far to regulate the STA market and thanked staff for their time and hard work but added that council should not rush a decision.
She also added that the sudden influx of people coming to the county could help solve the affordable housing issue.
“We want to invest in the community. Help us help you. We can build the houses you need.” Mason said. “People are leaving the city in droves because they miss community, they miss what you have, so please protect it. Be united not divided. You all want the same thing. You want a community full of love, a community that has farmers, that has hospitals, that has houses for single parents. You all want the same thing. Take your time and do it well, what you have is so precious,” Mason said in perhaps the most passionate, poignant and well received comment from the audience on Thursday.
During discussion, Councillor Kevin Gale worried about the licensing bylaw and the administration of such.
Given that the process is complaint driven currently, Gale saw this as another case of pitting neighbour against neighbour and the municipality might be unable to enforce what’s on the books due to a lack of resources.
“From the spring until 2020, there will be three people in the bylaw department that will be looking after this among their other duties,” Gale said. “This is community changing and if we aren’t going to enforce the bylaw as the way it’s written today, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. I want to know we are going have the money for the enforcement.”
Hull said he supported what was on the table and said he didn’t think current STA owners didn’t realize that, currently, these types of accommodations are not an allowable use and that a citizen can go to the bylaw enforcement officer and ask to have the current rules enforced. He added a constituent told him that if the County didn’t have something in place regarding STAs, the individual was going to go directly to the bylaw officers and have the current rules in enforced, effectively shutting down an AirBNB commercial enterprise operating out of a residence without any zoning or permits to do so.
“The current state is not going to exist in the future. It’s going to either be the wild west where citizens complain and the bylaw enforcement officer shuts down existing Airbnbs because they are not an allowable use or we have orderly regulation. What do we get from this and speaking of neighbours and neighbourhoods. Preservation of neighbours and neighbourhoods. It protects the existing owners, who have made investments and people applied for building permit to develop an STA. It doesn’t protect anyone who hasn’t applied for a building permit and anyone who comes in the future and tries to expand where the density is too high.”
The motion is expected to be ratified at the Oct. 9 council meeting.
For more information and links to municipal documents regarding STAs in the county, please visit http://www.thecounty.ca/county-government/municipal-projects/short-term-accommodations/