British Columbia·In Depth

Room with a sue: Airbnb strata battles showing up in court

A pair of recent small claims court battles highlight the uphill battle for condo owners caught using their units as Airbnb rentals.

Short-term condo rental market faces tough times in light of legislation and legal precedent

A pair of dogs await visitors to Emily Yu's North Vancouver townhouse. According to a decision from B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal, the unit has served as both an Airbnb hostel and a pet-sitting service. (Airbnb)

In one case, a condo owner argued he wasn't renting his bedroom out — he was licensing its use.

A photograph of about 15 pairs of men's shoes lined up outside a doorway was entered into evidence in another — proof the townhouse owner in question had used her unit as a kind of hostel.

Both cases ended with fines upheld by B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) in favour of strata corporations trying to prevent the rental of units through Airbnb.

Throw in the City of Vancouver's licensing regime and a crucial 2017 Supreme Court ruling, and you've likely got a glimpse of the future for short-term condo rentals. It's not rosy.

"It's going to be hard times for Airbnb operators who are operating out of condos," says Paul Mendes, a lawyer who specializes in condo and strata disputes.

"Because unless your strata is permitting Airbnbs — even without a specific prohibition of that type of behaviour, I could see stratas cracking down and owners being on the losing end."

Hostel and pet-sitting locale

Last week, the tribunal ruled against a man whose strata sued him for violating a bylaw restricting an owner from "renting less than all of a strata lot" by advertising his spare bedroom on Airbnb.

The ruling follows a case last September involving a North Vancouver woman who rented her three-bedroom, five-level townhouse as a hostel housing "a changing group of 10 to 20 strangers per night."

According to the decision, the City of North Vancouver demanded Emily Yu cease and desist after several inspections — including one noting the presence of vending machines.

An increasing number of condo strata corporations are passing bylaws deliberately designed to prevent owners from renting their units out on services like Airbnb. (Gabrielle Lurie/Reuters)

Neighbours expressed concerns including fire hazards, clutter, smokers outside, the high volume of strangers and the threat of bed bugs.

Compounding the issue: Yu's previous use of the property as a pet-sitting service.

The strata gave Yu a two-dog exemption to its one-pet bylaw after she provided a doctor's note saying she "would benefit from taking care of and living" with her own dogs and occasional "play-dates" with those of friends.

But the strata claimed she advertised "pet boarding, drop-in visits, dog walking and dog day-care."

"The evidence provided by the strata was that multiple dogs were witnessed ... with allegations about animal waste in the home and dogs locked up in kennels and in rooms," the ruling says.

Tribunal vice-chair Shelley Lopez upheld nearly $7,000 worth of bylaw fines related to Yu's use of her property to house both human and canine guests.

'It's a hotel use'

Mendes says he gets several inquiries a week about Airbnb from both owners who want to rent their units and stratas bent on preventing them.

The current legal landscape skews in favour of the stratas.

It's framed by a 2017 B.C. Supreme Court ruling dealing cited in both tribunal decisions.

It concerns an amendment to B.C.'s Strata Property Act delaying the enforcement of bylaws limiting or prohibiting rentals for a year after the tenant at the time the bylaw was passed has moved.

Former B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman introduced an amendment to the Strata Property Act designed to protect owners against the sudden introduction of bylaws. But it doesn't extend to short-term rentals (CBC)

Former Liberal housing minister Rich Coleman introduced the law to grandfather the rights of owners dependant on rental tenants.

Madam Justice Neena Sharma was asked to rule on a challenge from a company that leased suites to high end clients for months at a time.

She found the amendment's protection doesn't extend to situations outside regular rental agreements — like the licensing of a unit or a bedroom for short-term rentals.

"I think the correct way to think about Airbnbs is that they are not rentals in the way the Strata Property Act contemplates," says Mendes.

"They are uses. It's a hotel use."

'I couldn't enjoy my property'

Mendes predicts new Vancouver regulations will also have a big impact.

The rules specify that only a primary place of residence can be licensed as a short-term rental. Mendes says that will hit many owners who bought multiple units hoping to get rich running mini-hotels.

Meanwhile, Yu is fighting back.

She appears to have taken her unit off Airbnb, but she's appealing the tribunal's ruling in B.C. Supreme Court.

In her application to set the decision aside, Yu claims she's the victim: she claims her neighbours have violated her Charter of Rights.

"I couldn't enjoy my property when they continue to spy on my property, take photos on my property, questions my renters what is inside of my property, harass me," she wrote.

"My privacy right(s) and human right(s) (are) also seriously infringed."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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