Loophole could allow Airbnb hosts in Vancouver to use fake licence numbers

Airbnb won't remove listings from its site that have a fake licence number or are the source of other legal violations, according to a memorandum of understanding between the company and the City of Vancouver.

Memorandum of understanding shows Airbnb won't be responsible for removing listings from its site

Vancouver homeowners and primary residents who wish to list properties on websites like Airbnb need to obtain a short-term rental accommodation licence from city hall, according to recently implemented bylaws. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

A Vancouver housing activist says there's a gaping hole in the city's agreement with Airbnb to get unlicensed suites off the vacation rental website.

Last week the city's general manager of development, Kaye Krishna, said that Airbnb will "kick people off the site" if they are not complying with the city's new rules by the end of the summer.

But the fine print in the agreement shows that's not completely true, says housing activist Rohana Rezel.

Rezel recently obtained a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the City of Vancouver and Airbnb through a freedom of information request.

While the city promoted the MOU as the first of its kind in Canada, it never released the details, which got Rezel curious about the fine print.

"I was thinking if the MOU is so great, why not release it to the public?" he said Thursday.

'Randomly generated number'

But when he got the memorandum, Rezel was surprised by the sections that laid out how Airbnb will work with the city to crack down on listings without a licence number.

"Yes, If you leave that licence field blank, they will deactivate it. But all you have to do is put a randomly generated number and you will be within the rules as far as Airbnb goes," he said.

Airbnb listings in Vancouver will require a licence number after Aug. 31. (Airbnb)

Rezel, who works in IT, says it would be simple for the city or Airbnb to create software that would catch fake licence numbers.

"It is something that is very easily implementable. In fact, if the city wants my help I would be happy to implement it for free," he said.

'Airbnb shall not be responsible'

But the fault could have more to do with the enforcement agreement than a lack of software.

According to the city's new bylaws designed to crack down on short-term rentals, Vancouver homeowners and primary residents who wish to list properties on websites like Airbnb will need to obtain a short-term rental accommodation licence from city hall.

Airbnb will give them until Aug. 31 to add the licence number to their listing, or the listing will be deactivated, the MOU says.

The company will also provide a list of all addresses and licences in Vancouver listed on the site.

The City of Vancouver estimated last year there were 6,000 short-term rentals operating illegally. (Airbnb)

But the agreement also says Airbnb won't remove listings with a fake licence number or are the source of other legal violations. 

"Airbnb will not be responsible for removing from its platform any listings that have incorrect registration numbers or are otherwise invalid," it states.

​"Similarly ... Airbnb shall not be responsible for removing listings from its platform that belong to such Hosts that have violated provisions of City bylaws," the document states.

Instead, it will be up to the city to crack down on the bylaw violations with fines and other enforcement methods.

'Loopholes will continue to exist'

In an emailed response, an Airbnb spokesperson said: "We will be providing the city with the personal information of our hosts, including name, listing address, licence number and email address, which will provide the city with the tools they need to enforce  — something that no other platform has done.

"Airbnb has said from the outset that we are committed to being a responsible partner with the city, but without the cooperation of other platforms, loopholes will continue to exist for bad actors."

The city issued a response later on Thursday saying: "The city will pursue enforcement against operators who are listing without a valid business licence.

"We continue to seek similar MOUs with other short-term rental platforms, including Expedia and TripAdvisor who are the next two biggest operators, to ensure compliance with our short-term rental regulations."

Airbnb allows owners to list their homes and bedrooms for short-term rentals around the world. (Short-term cities/Airbnb Canada)

Crackdown underway

Last month the city announced it had started to crack down on illegal operators of short-term rentals posted on Airbnb under the terms of the new agreement.

Already, more than 100 listings with duplicate or incorrect business licences are under audit and subject to additional enforcement.

Under the new policy, short-term rentals of a secondary suite or laneway house will only be allowed if the property is the owner's principal residence; or if it is rented long term and the tenant wishes to operate a short-term rental, with approval of the owner.

Homeowners in breach of the law face fines of up to $1,000 per day for each infraction.

With files from CBC's The Early Edition.

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