OTTAWA — Winnipeg would have 11 per cent more rental units if they weren’t used entirely by short-term visitors, new data suggest, prompting calls for the city to monitor sites like Airbnb.
"We're talking about relatively small numbers, but it's definitely pointing in a pretty troubling direction," said David Wachsmuth, an urban governance professor at McGill University in Montreal.
Last week, Wachsmuth published a cross-Canada survey of the impact of short-term rental sites like Airbnb on rental markets.
His research found that those sites took 31,000 rental units out of the market in 2018, and that this is rising among smaller cities and rural areas. The figure does not include rentals that owner post for occasional weekend visitors.
In Winnipeg, about 100 entire housing units were being used full-time for sites like Airbnb and VRBO in 2017, a number that doubled to 200 in 2018.
Jino Distasio, the director of urban studies at the University of Winnipeg, said the city has a healthy vacancy rate, but it could suffer if trends continue.
"There's not significant pressure," said Distasio. "For a city like Winnipeg it is certainly important to monitor."
He noted that data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggest Winnipeg had 59,000 rental units last year with an overall vacancy of 2.9 per cent, which he says is an appropriate balance.
That means roughly 1,700 rental units were available in Winnipeg — although the research suggests 1,900 units would have otherwise been on the market. That would represent an 11.6 per cent increase in available units.
Those units are concentrated downtown and around Osborne Village.
"There are certain parts of the city where there is going to be a much more substantial issue than others," Wachsmuth said. "This is going to be one factor in pushing up rents, in one set of neighbourhoods."
Distasio said that’s enough reason for city officials to start collecting and analyzing the same type of data used in Wachsmuth’s study.
"If it's doubling every year, we've got a problem. But if Winnipeg is just sort of stretching its wings right now in this area. and seeing what the market will hold (…) we’ll have to keep an eye on it," Distasio said.
"For short-term rentals it's a bit of a Wild West."
He said it’s up to city council and the province to decide whether to implement rules or restrictions, but the key is knowing if short-terms rentals are undercutting vacancy rates or the viability of local hotels.
The research also found that fewer than 10 per cent of hosts are earning more than half the revenue on sites like Airbnb, challenging the company’s claims that it predominantly made up of families occasionally leasing a room in the home.
That’s no surprise to Scott Jocelyn, head of the Manitoba Hotel Association.
"It’s not as big of an issue today in Winnipeg as it is in other areas of the country, but why wait? It’s coming," said Jocelyn, who has met with provincial and city officials about regulation as recently as this spring.
City staff are reviewing a tax change that would have sites like Airbnb pay the same accommodation tax as hotels, before presenting it to city council.
In its 2017 study of Airbnb listings, the Hotel Association of Canada found that only 17 per cent of the site’s revenue across Canada comes from home-sharing, with the bulk or revenue coming from stays where the owner is not present.
In Winnipeg, 39 per cent of units on the site were rented out for more than 90 nights, and those listings made up 80 per cent of Airbnb revenue in the city.
Jocelyn said officials at both levels are trying to see what other jurisdictions are doing. But he noted that last week’s study found that some Montreal neighbourhoods now have one in 10 homes frequently rented on Airbnb.
"Let's look at some regulations before it gets to that point," he argued.
Wachsmuth agreed, noting much attention has been paid to the issue in Canada’s largest cities.
"What the data for Winnipeg confirms is that it's some of the areas we haven't been paying much attention to — for example, the Prairies — where the growth is happening the fastest, and impacts that are going to be coming will be strongest."
Updated on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 at 9:42 AM CDT: adds map