Why this Vancouver legal battle could pull back the curtain on a problem with the housing market

VANCOUVER — A fight underway in Vancouver could, for the first time in Canada, reveal how much the prevalence of short-term rentals is making it harder and pricier for those looking to find a home.

The latest chapter in the saga has seen Airbnb file a petition for the judicial review of an order from British Columbia’s information and privacy authority.

Challenging the City of Vancouver and Airbnb is Rohana Rezel, a former city council candidate, who filed the freedom of information for information kept by the city that he contends could reveal the extent of short-term rentals’ effect on the housing market.

“The argument that Airbnb and city both use to justify having Airbnbs in Vancouver in the first place is it’s just people renting out their spare rooms or people renting out their places when they go on vacation,” Rezel said.

“This data will show that this is not the case at all.”

Instead, he argues, it is a full-time industry for some who are renting out entire houses and suites year-round. And he says he expects the data will prove it – and that greater transparency of the information would make it easier to catch those breaking the city’s short-term rental laws.

The information Rezel is seeking includes property owner names, addresses and business license numbers of short-term rentals.

If the information were released, it could be used to find out how many units used to have full-time tenants before being used strictly for short-term rentals and other information able to show the extent of short-term rentals on Vancouver’s housing market. Housing advocates have long argued short-term rentals hurt renters by limiting supply.

The city, which collects the information as part of its regulation of the operations, initially refused to release it. The city said doing so could endanger the lives and security of short-term rental operators.

Rezel took his complaint to the province’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC), which launched an inquiry into Vancouver’s rejection of the request.

Elizabeth Barker, director of adjudication for the OIPC, disagreed with the city and ruled last month it must release the requested data to Rezel, including addresses of short-term rentals and business license information held by Vancouver. She gave the city until Jan. 28. The information of one operator, who had been the victim of stalking, was exempted in the order.

But when the deadline came the city had not released the information.

International short-term rental website, Airbnb, filed a petition in BC Supreme Court asking for a judicial review of the decision. Court documents show Airbnb is arguing the OIPC was “unreasonable” in its decision.

It said the office breached the rules of “procedural fairness and natural justice” by not providing notice to short-term rental operators of the decision, among other arguments.

Airbnb spokesperson Matt McNama said the company will not comment on the case because it’s before court, “but it’s critical that Hosts in Vancouver have confidence in the privacy of their personal information when they share their primary residences. The personal information of hosts should not be released. ”

The City of Vancouver said in a statement it can not release the information because the matter is before the courts.

The order to provide the information to Rezel was a “huge coup” for housing activists in Vancouver, said Thorben Wieditz, director of Fairbnb, a national coalition of organizations and individuals interested in regulating short-term rentals.

“That is pure gold,” Wieditz said. “That’s the first time that you will actually gain really accurate information as to where this listing is located, and that’s very important.”

Wieditz said such information has not been shared in Canada before.

Rezel asked why the city did not release the information and Airbnb waited until the last minute to file its petition, accusing them of “lawfare” to prevent the information from being released.

Now it’s up to the OIPC to fight the petition, he said.

Vancouver has seen its already pricey real estate increase even more in recent years, with rents also going up. A recent study by Rentals.ca said Vancouver rents increased 13.2 per cent for a one-bedroom over the last year. The figure was based on rentals listed on the Rentals.ca website.

In Toronto, prices also increased more than nine per cent, according to the same report.


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