City of Ottawa eyes digital 'surveillance' of short-term rental platforms
Bylaw enforcement hopes to scrape details from AirBnb, Vrbo and other sites
The City of Ottawa is looking for a digital platform of its own to scrape short-term rental platforms, which would help crack down on people who might flout a new bylaw.
The bylaw approved in spring 2021 requires permits for listing short-term rentals on websites such as Airbnb, and hosts can only list their principal residences or rural cottages with a maximum of 10 guests.
The city began phasing in the new rules this June, though zoning elements of the new rules are being appealed.
The city has issued a request for proposals for a "web surveillance solution" that will scrape data off websites including Airbnb, Vrbo, Expedia, TripAdvisor, FlipKey and misterb&b — and create a dashboard bylaw enforcement can use.
The collected information would include the host's permit number, listing availability, a screen capture and the advertised rate among other publicly available data from the site.
Challenges enforcing short-term rental bylaws
Urban planning professor David Wachsmuth, who has studied the impact of short-term rental on housing, says cities are finding they need these strategies to have enough information needed to enforce bylaws.
"Let's say there isn't the greatest history of co-operation by the short-term rental platforms, including Airbnb, with these kinds of requests," said Wachsmuth, who teaches at McGill University in Montreal.
"There's really no substitute for visiting the websites of these platforms themselves and collecting the information that's publicly available on them."
Wachsmuth said short-term rental platforms grew in a regulatory grey area, which means complaint-driven enforcement lags behind stronger regulations.
Several American cities, including Los Angeles and Boston, have used digital surveillance of these sites, while Toronto closed its request for bids earlier this year for a similar contract to enforce its bylaw.
In a statement, Airbnb said it will comply with City of Ottawa bylaws and looks forward to providing the city with more transparency on its hosts through its city portal.
Sorting through the haystack
The City of Ottawa tender also suggests some nice-to-have features such as predictive modelling for potential fraud, cluster analysis to identify "different behaviours" and detecting hotspots.
Wachsmuth said those strategies will help the city send enforcement where it's needed most by getting information about potential fake reviews, or how many days of the year a "primary residence" might be booked.
"In Ottawa, like in pretty much every other city, a really large amount of the listings that you can search ... aren't really active ... which means you can end up with a needle-in-a-haystack problem," he said.
"You really like to be able to focus in on the ones that are responsible for most reservations and also the ones in particular that might be breaking the rules."
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Wachsmuth said privacy considerations should be minimal since data is being collected off of public websites. He said the privacy and anonymity afforded by those platforms is one of the barriers to enforcement.
The city's request for proposals asks for the development of a privacy safeguard and says all collected data will be owned by the city and stored within Canada.
The lawyer representing the Ottawa Short-Term Rental Association, which is challenging the city's bylaw, said no one was available for comment.
In a statement, the city said that appeal will not affect the request for proposals, and this technology will be part of a range of enforcement mechanisms and strategies.