A group of Toronto residents and owners took back control of their condo building this week from short-term rental companies they say had stacked the board of directors against them, and were allowing the building to be run like a hotel.
The group involved in the meeting Tuesday night also has a message to dwellers of other condos: Be prepared, because your building could be next.
Owners of units in a downtown building near Wellington Street West and John Street — a bustling tourist area near the Rogers Centre and Toronto International Film Festival venues — were relieved as they celebrated the end of what they described as a two-year ordeal.
"Of course everybody's happy," said Igor Gurgs, who owns a suite that he rents to a long-term tenant. "We were applauding. People were drinking champagne."
The group says short-term rental companies, notably WhiteHall Suites and Red Maple Suites, are doing business in their building — in clear violation of the condo rules that state the shortest rental period is one year. While some buildings in the area are joint hotel-condo complexes, this building was never registered that way.
When condo directors at the Wellington-John building tried to clamp down on short-term rentals last year, they were voted off the board and replaced by non-residents who some owners say were sympathetic to the rental companies. Only one spot on the five-person board is reserved for an owner-occupier, while the other spots can be occupied by anyone, including non-residents.
At the Tuesday meeting, owners successfully removed four of the five board members, saying they had lost confidence in them. The removed board members were replaced with four people who are against short-term rentals.
The sole owner-occupier, Paulina Knight, remains on the board.
"I am so excited, so excited," said resident Ann Drysdale. "It's been almost two years of craziness, and lies, and deception and inappropriateness."
Loud parties and drunken excess
Drysdale said much of what she calls inappropriateness was linked to the behaviour of guests renting for short stays and treating the building like a hotel.
"I've had people enter my suite and look at me like I'm crazy," she said. "They got the wrong door. She told CBC News she heard them enter the suite across the hall, telling their children that Drysdale was in the wrong because she didn't lock her door.
Other residents complained of loud parties and drunken excess.
'There were cigarette butts, there were beer bottles, vomiting.' - Atul Paul, resident
"There was a lot of rubbish that was thrown in the patio, there were cigarette butts, there were beer bottles, vomiting," said Atul Paul, an owner and resident.
"I had to clean my balcony siding a couple of times over the last few months because someone threw up over the top."
Companies didn't own suites they rented online
Neither WhiteHall nor Red Maple owns suites in the building. Instead, the companies lease the units from owners, then rent them on sites like Expedia.ca and Booking.com.
A quick internet search still shows units in the building for short-term rent under both companies' names.
As the meeting went on inside the condominium recreation room on Tuesday, three German tourists sat forlornly in the lobby with their luggage, waiting to be checked in for a three-night stay.
The tourists said they had booked the suite online from WhiteHall and weren't aware short-term stays were against the building's rules.
Rental companies say they're being singled out
But WhiteHall Suites and Red Maple Suites both deny doing anything wrong.
They say short-term rentals were going on in the building before they began the practice, and that it was tolerated by previous boards, despite the written rules against it.
"We have been operating for over five years in this building and our lease agreements were provided to the building property managements," said WhiteHall Suites president Adnan Khan in a written statement to CBC News.
"Why were we not informed for the last five years that short term is prohibited?" The statement continued, "Our lease agreements clearly state that the properties will be used for short-term renting."
"Our lease agreements clearly state that the properties will be used for short term renting." - Adnan Khan, President, WhiteHall Suites
WhiteHall also denied any links to the former board members. But a Corporate Housing Providers Association of Canada web page lists a former condo board member as the main contact for WhiteHall Suites.
As for Red Maple, spokesperson Uroos Jabeen acknowledged to CBC News that they did try to influence the composition of the previous board. "Yes, we asked our landlords to vote for these people," Jabeen said.
But she said the company had the best interests of the building at heart and that it was being treated "very unfairly."
'I'm sure it's happening in other buildings'
Unfair or not, it appears that with a new board in place that is ready to enforce the rules, the days of short-term rentals in this building are numbered.
WhiteHall said it will vacate all its units by Nov. 30. Red Maple said it will not renew current leases when they expire.
But residents say that won't stop short-term rental companies from finding other buildings.
Gurgs says volunteer-run condo boards are ill-equipped to fight back, even if rules against short-term rentals are already in place.
"There should be some laws preventing these crews to take over," he said. "You can't go after them without paying tons of money and paying lawyers."
Drysdale says she thinks it's a matter of building closer ties between residents.
"Get to know your neighbours and see if they're angry or mad about this as well," she said, "because I"m sure it's happening in other buildings as well.
The City of Toronto doesn't have any regulations about short-term rentals, though the issue has become a hot topic at city hall in recent weeks. At least one councillor has suggested there's no way the city can police the thousands of condo units in the city, while another councillor said she would welcome a ban on services like Airbnb.