Halifax gets first look at proposed regulations for Airbnbs

Halifax councilors are applauding municipal changes to better regulate short-term rentals like Airbnbs, but some are asking for more details before moving forward.

On Tuesday, staff presented to the Halifax Regional Council a report on suggested changes to various plans land use strategies and regulations to streamline the city’s approach to the issue.

“The housing crisis is acute, just pass … the tents in the parks,” said the adviser. Waye Mason said during the council.

“It’s a way of ensuring that the residential [stock] stays available for rent for people who live here.”

Advice staff led in September 2020 consider making specific changes to the bylaws.

The new rules would apply to the entire municipality and only allow short-term rentals in residential areas if it is the main residence of the hosts. In commercial and mixed areas where there are already hotels, rentals could continue without this rule.

The report used data from analytics website AirDNA which showed Halifax’s short-term rental market “remains dominated by whole-unit listings”, which accounted for 81% of the roughly 2 000 city listings in August. Of the total dwellings, 509 were classified as a house, bungalow or townhouse, while 677 were apartments, condos or lofts.

Mason said the hope is the changes will reduce so-called ghost hotels in residential areas where landlords who live elsewhere are buying apartments, evicting tenants and turning the building into short-term rentals only.

Staff estimated around 400 listings would have to start having the owner live in the property to comply with the new rules, but were unsure how many of those would actually be re-marketed as long-term rentals or would sold.

Shawn Cleary is the Councilor for District 9 Halifax West Armdale. (Radio Canada)

Com. Shawn Cleary said he couldn’t bear to take the first step and send the changes to a public hearing on a “leap of faith” without getting more data.

He asked that the matter be postponed until after April 1, 2023 and that staff come back with more information on how many short-term rentals would become “illegal or non-compliant” under the changes, and how many units would be converted to long-term rentals based on other cities that have taken a similar approach.

“Even if you’re 20% behind, a good, solid try is better than, ‘Ah, we don’t know,'” Cleary said. “I… can’t move forward with changes whose impact we don’t know.”

A map shows the location of short-term rentals in the Halifax area by red dots.  Most are clustered in the regional center of the city, with some appearing along the east coast.
The red dots on this map indicate the location of short-term rentals in HRM as of October 2022. The gray areas represent commercial areas where such rentals would be permitted without a landlord primarily residing there. (Halifax Regional Municipality)

Cleary also said she heard complaints from the tourism industry that she had not been properly consulted and deserved more attention, as short-term rentals made up about 20% of stays in Halifax in August.

But Mason and Coun. Sam Austin was among those pushing to move forward.

“The situation…out there on housing is more urgent than that,” Austin said.

Other advisors questioned whether it was realistic, or even possible, for staff to collect actual estimates of the number of listings that would be converted back into the market.

Com. Pamela Lovelace said she didn’t want to waste staff time combing through thousands of online listings looking for answers, and they had enough to move the process along.

“All we do is just throw a can down the road to throw a can down the road, and hope that maybe we get a little more,” Lovelace said.

Mayor Mike Savage sided with Cleary and said the tourism industry deserved more time to consider the bylaw changes.

Savage also said they still have time because the provincial registry required for short-term rentals will not come into force until April 2023.

“A little more effort on this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think it slows the process down,” Savage said.

Council interested in better application

In addition to Cleary’s requests, the council approved requests for staff reports on allowing short-term rentals and secondary units like backyard suites on the same lot as a resident’s main home, what a “pro-enforcement approach” to short-term rentals would look like, and financing options to achieve this.

The new rules would bring a consistent definition of short-term rental as a dwelling unit (or part of a unit) used primarily for the accommodation of the traveling or vacationing public, and is provided as temporary accommodation for a period 28 days or less.

The term “short-term room rental” would replace and standardize the bed and breakfast approach and include accommodation in houses or the rental of a guest room.

Cleary’s motion to defer the matter passed and will come back to council in the spring.

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