“It’s nothing more than glorified couch-surfing.”
That’s what Faith Embleton, co-owner of Yellowknife bed-and-breakfast Embleton House, thinks about unlicensed accommodations booked through apps such as Airbnb.
“In someways it is a great thing, it’s an adventure, but people my age are past the adventure age, even 25-year olds are past the adventure age,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Embleton is one of a handful of B ‘n’ B and Airbnb hosts who attended a public meeting Wednesday on how, or if, the city should regulate “short-term rentals” – commercial accommodations in private homes for 31 days or fewer.
Currently, short-term rentals in Yellowknife are not regulated, but bed-and-breakfasts are, under the city’s Business License bylaw.
But amid an ongoing shortage of places for visitors to stay in Yellowknife, a swath of unlicensed accommodations, enabled by Airbnb, VRBO and others, have cropped up in recent years to meet the demand.
“If you (went) on Airbnb and VBRO six years ago, it was not such a big thing, and now there’s over 100 in Yellowknife just listed as of last week,” said Kerry Penney, the city’s director of Policy, Communications and Economic Development, at Wednesday’s public consultation session.
But the growing number of impromptu accommodations has come with mounting concerns about safety, fairness, and the influx of tourists in residential buildings and neighbourhoods.
The city also faces the challenge of preventing short-term rentals from encroaching on its available rental stock, while ensuring there are enough options to accommodate a growing number and variety tourists, especially during peak aurora-viewing season.
“Some people want that unique local experience and they don’t want to stay at a hotel, and they want to stay at an Airbnb, whether that’s a room or a couch or a cabin,” said Penney.
She said it’s unclear right now what impact the spike in short-term rentals is having on Yellowknife’s broader rental housing market.
Embleton says the city hasn’t shown “much backbone” on the issue.
“It’s folly to allow anybody and everybody to have short-term rentals,” Embleton said Thursday.
To not regulate, she said, is to say, in effect, “Come and visit us in Yellowknife, but be really careful about your accommodation because you might end up in a dump, or you might end up in some weirdo’s house.”
To Embleton, the wild-west approach to travellers’ accommodations in Yellowknife is eroding the reputations licensed operators have cultivated for decades.
For nearly 20 years, Faith and Ken Embleton have acquired all the necessary licenses and inspections to run their bed-and-breakfast above board.
That’s meant $200 a year in licensing fees, $100 for an annual boiler check, thousands of dollars for a sprinkler system, and specialized insurance policies, the couple said Thursday.
“I need a license to do business so my big concern with (short-term rentals) is… they’re taking my business, and they’re able to do that without a license,” said Ken Embleton.
“It’s not fair to the guy who’s going by the rules and doing the proper thing.”
The Embletons don’t advertise on Airbnb.
“I’ve thought about it a thousand times,” said Faith.
“I could fill this place to the rafters if I wanted to do that, but until there’s such a time that they have some ethics, I don’t want that.”
Rob Warburton takes a different view.
“It’s protectionist,” said Warburton Thursday, of B ‘n’ B owners calling for regulation of the entire short-term rental market.
Warburton owns a condo that he rents out on Airbnb.
“I shouldn’t be limited on my options for a huge investment I’ve made.”
Yellowknife currently has a thorough system for building and inspecting residential properties, and ensuring they’re safe, he said. Why add another another layer of red tape?
“The city can’t enforce bylaws they have already,” said Warburton, let alone inspect more than a hundred pop-up units.
Warburton believes in leveling the playing field by removing some of the regulatory burdens from bed-and-breakfast owners: they shouldn’t have to jump hurdles that Airbnb-ers don’t have to.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the city heard that Airbnb is popular because it is flexible for operators, easy to use for travellers, and responsive to fluctuating demand.
Cities across Canada and around the world are grappling with how to manage major digital disruptions to everything from the news media to the taxi industry to travellers’ accommodations.
“This is the way everything is going,” said Warburton.
To gauge the climate surrounding short-term rentals, the city held a series of focus groups and is encouraging residents to fill out an online survey at: yellowknifeSTRsurvey.ca.
A what-we-heard report based on these consultations will be available in January, and administration will make recommendations to city council by the end of that month.