‘Ghost hotels’ will haunt next city council
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Laurie Foster’s wife has jokingly nicknamed him “Neighbourhood Watch” for his dedication to looking out the front window of their home and recording the number of cars and trucks across the street. In the past six months, he’s counted 550 different vehicles, many bearing licence plates from various Canadian provinces and American states. All are coming and going from a single house.
The Fosters, who have lived on a quiet street in Waverley Heights for 24 years, have the misfortune to be living across from a house that has become a “ghost hotel,” the term used for an Airbnb house whose owner is nowhere to be seen.
“If people haven’t had the personal experience of living near one of these ghost hotels, they think it’s not a big deal, but it’s really annoying,” Laurie Foster told me.
The house that has earned his considerable ire is only 945 square feet and crams in as many paying guests as possible to maximize revenue. It was originally built with a main floor that included three bedrooms, but the basement has since been renovated to include three more bedrooms. It’s advertised on Airbnb as suitable accommodation for up to 12 adults.
For the bank account of the absentee owner, it’s a lucrative arrangement. If it was rented by the month, a house of the size in this middle-class neighborhood would bring the owner about $1,500 a month, which works out to $50 a night. On Airbnb, it rents for $229 a night.
It’s not considered a welcome neighbour by many of the people who live on the block and know ghost hotels are notorious as sites for excessive partying and even sex-trade appointments. They feel strongly that it’s not a good fit for their type of family-friendly community, where children walk to one of three nearby schools.
The street used to be quiet and safe, but now the ghost hotel is a hub of parked vehicles, including large trucks and construction equipment used by the many out-of-town crews that find the ghost hotel a cheap place to sleep.
What perturbs the Waverley Heights residents is that this business, a commercial enterprise by any sensible definition, is allowed in a neighbourhood that is zoned R1 residential. So, why doesn’t the city shut it down?
To ask that question, get in line. City council has been strongly lobbied by residents in different areas of the city who, like the Waverley Heights group, feel their neighbourhoods have been cursed by the invasion of a ghost hotel. This issue was before city council last May, and parties on both sides had their say.
People who advertise on services such as Airbnb said their industry shouldn’t be sullied by the extremes of ghost hotels. They said short-term rentals are an economical option for visitors, and offer a legitimate side hustle for homeowners who are open to renting part of their home.
Council didn’t make a decision on the issue. Instead, it asked administration to gather more information and conduct a survey.
Meanwhile, councillors moved on to electioneering for the Oct. 26 election. None has made ghost hotels a significant part of their campaign, although Foster says Coun. Markus Chambers has been sympathetic to Waverley Heights homeowners, and Coun. Janice Lukes came out to meet them face-to-face.
When the new council deals with the issue, as it should, serious consideration should be given to a proposal by the Manitoba Hotel Association, although it’s true traditional hotels are not objective on this issue. They have a vested interest because the hospitality industry can’t afford to offer the cheap rates of ghost hotels, which don’t have to pay business taxes and licensing fees, and don’t have to keep their premises to a high code of fire and safety checks.
What the legitimate hoteliers propose is that short-term rental upstarts only be allowed to rent sections of their primary residences. This would stop dealers in real estate from buying several condos or houses to rent them out to a never-ending succession of short-term lodgers.
This compromise would hearken back to the original ethos of Airbnb when it began in 2007, allowing people to rent out part of the home in which they live.
As the new council adjusts the rules, homeowners should be allowed to share their hospitality with paying guests. But the personal touch of an on-site host should become mandatory.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.
Updated on Saturday, October 8, 2022 9:36 AM CDT: Fixed headline