Airbnbs have 'serious impact' on Toronto housing despite making up less than 1% of dwellings, expert says

Airbnb listings for entire homes in Toronto only make up as much as 0.8 per cent of all the city’s private dwellings, but one urban planning expert says that’s still enough of the market to have a “serious impact” on the affordability and availability of housing in Toronto.

The Waterfront Communities is one of the top 5 neighbourhoods for Airbnbs in Canada

There were more than 9,500 listings for entire homes in Toronto on Airbnb when CBC News monitored the site for 24-hours in April.

Airbnb listings for entire homes in Toronto only make up as much as 0.8 per cent of all the city's private dwellings, but one urban planning expert says that's still enough of the market to have a "serious impact" on the affordability and availability of housing in Toronto.

One per cent or less of housing "is by far enough" Airbnb activity to raise housing prices and rent in Toronto, according to David Wachsmuth. The McGill University professor says the percentage looks small because it also takes into account occupied dwellings.

"It doesn't matter what's happening in 99 per cent of the houses that already have residents in them," said Wachsmuth, who has studied Airbnb for three years. "What matters is what are the apartments that are vacant and available for rent."

McGill University urban planning professor David Wachsmuth says he's in favour of true home-sharing, but not commercial operators on Airbnb who take up what would otherwise be rental housing. (Radio-Canada)

And while it's not entirely clear how many of the entire homes listed on Airbnb would be vacant otherwise, last month there were more than 9,500 such listings in Toronto managed by 6,500 hosts. To get those numbers CBC News monitored Airbnb for entire apartment, condo and house listings over the course of 24 hours in 16 major Canadian cities — including Toronto.

Airbnb has repeatedly called such independently obtained figures "very unreliable."

Waterfront one of top neighbourhoods in Canada

A big chunk of Toronto's listings are downtown in the Waterfront Communities. With 2,300 listings, it has the most of any neighbourhood in the city. CBC's analysis suggests as many as 5.3 per cent of all private dwellings in the neighbourhood are listed on Airbnb. It's one of the top five Airbnb neighbourhoods in Canada, behind parts of Montreal and Quebec City.

Top 5 neighbourhoods in Canada by percentage of dwellings listed as 'entire place' rentals on Airbnb, as of April 10, 2019. The top 4 are all in Quebec. (CBC News)

Wachsmuth attributes the boom in the Waterfront Communities to a one-two punch of new condo builds and proximity to tourist attractions. Until a few years ago, he says, condos were snapped up by people who wanted to live there, or as investment properties where the owners would find long-term tenants.

Now another — potentially more lucrative — option is on the rise with the new supply of housing on the waterfront.

"The investors who are buying them are turning them into Airbnbs instead of into apartments," Waschsmuth told CBC News. "That's one pattern that you see in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where the new condo construction is kind of going directly into the short term rental market."

'We want people to have a place to live,' city official says

Toronto's executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards hopes the city's proposed short-term regulations will put an end to that trend — if and when they come into effect. Under the regulations, Airbnbs could only be operated through a person's primary residence for up to 180 nights a year, essentially making short-term rental investment properties illegal. 

"We want six month and 12 month leases; we want people to have a place to live," said Carleton Grant, who helped develop the regulations.

"We want people to have affordable and available housing, not have our rental prices continue to increase because housing has been taken away by the investment group."

The regulations have been in limbo since Airbnb hosts appealed the motion to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. A two-day hearing was originally scheduled for August of last year but was rescheduled for this August to accommodate a longer, five day hearing.

This map uses a colour scale to show the percentage of dwellings listed as 'entire place' rentals on Airbnb in each of Toronto's neighbourhoods as of April 10, 2019. (CBC)

Airbnb declined an interview with CBC News, but said in a statement that it "supports regulations on home sharing that protect the affordable housing supply while still letting the city and local residents realize more of the economic benefits of tourism.

"Homes listed on our platform account for a tiny percentage of the total local housing supply," said Alexandra Dagg, the company's director of public policy in Canada.

While the top Airbnb neighbourhood encompasses obvious tourist attractions like the CN Tower and Rogers Centre, some of the other neighbourhoods with the highest percentages of Airbnb listings are less obvious — like Trinity-Bellwoods and Little Portugal.

Tourists looking to stay in different neighbourhoods

Both neighbourhoods are west of the city's downtown core, in areas with few to no hotels, and yet they could have more than two per cent of private dwellings listed on Airbnb.

At least some of those short term rentals are likely a result of a change in tourist activity Waschsmuth has seen in his research, where people are now interested in staying in different kinds of neighbourhoods while on vacation.

But Waschsmuth says the demand doesn't "balance out the fact that those neighbourhoods have higher housing prices and less housing available as a result."

"I think a good solution to that is build places for tourists to stay," he told CBC News.

But according to Grant, that's not really something the city is looking at doing, instead he says the proposed regulations would focus on maintaining residential communities in neighbourhoods like Trinity-Bellwoods and Little Portugal.

"We want to have minimal community nuisance," he said.

Methodology: How did CBC analyze Airbnb listings?

CBC News monitored and collected the price, number of reviews, star rating and geolocation of all listings advertising an entire home or suite that appeared on Airbnb's website on April 10, 2019, for 16 Canadian cities. A minority of listings might be duplicates of the same property created by the same host as a marketing strategy.

Each city provided CBC with their custom "Neighbourhood Profile" and current neighbourhood boundaries. CBC used the total number of private dwellings, which include both occupied and unoccupied homes. The City of Quebec could not provide CBC with that figure, so our analysis is based on the total number of occupied dwellings only.

Airbnb has consistently said that data gathered in this manner is unreliable and can have significant gaps because of the limited information available on its public web pages.

With files from data journalists Valerie Ouellet and Inayat Singh and files from Farrah Merali


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