Short Term Rentals in Sarnia

Back in June 2019, Councillor Bill Dennis made the following motion.

That Staff be directed to complete a staff report on the potential to regulate short term rental platforms (such as Airbnb) within the City of Sarnia within the next 30 days. I understand the Planning advisory Committee is looking at bed and breakfasts under the Safe Housing review but I don’t believe we can afford to wait until the Fall to consider this short term rental piece. Timing is of the essence given residents safety concerns coupled with the upcoming busy travel season and the local growth of this market. In May, the City of Windsor passed a Council resolution to formalize the regulation of short term rentals within their City. I would ask that our report specifically include the City of Windsor’s Council endorsed regulations (as well as any other relevant Municipality) for Councils information. I have had a series of complaints from residents concerned primarily with neighbourhood safety but also noting other concerns related to privacy and parking, to name but a few. Without municipal regulations in place it appears to be currently a free for all for this new market (there are currently 274 properties in Sarnia listed with Airbnb and this is only one of the short term rental platforms available online).

Bill Dennis

Since then, there has been a lot of back and forth between staff, local business owners and council trying to land on the best way to regulate short term rentals in Sarnia. We haven’t been getting very far and months later we have deferred making a decision for the third time. I won’t get into the details of these conversations, but there is a significant amount at stake for moving forward with this kind of regulation that we should be aware of.

There is a huge disconnect between what Councillor Dennis is actually proposing to regulate (short term rentals (STRs)) and why he is proposing to regulate it. All of the original reasoning for the motion quoted above has not been proven to be an issue for STRs at all (I have yet to see a single complaint of safety, privacy or parking related to STRs). Different delegations were heard at council, emails have been sent from citizens encouraging council to act swiftly to regulate STRs, but every single complaint I’ve heard so far has been a complaint about problematic tenants with absentee landlords or student housing with traffic going in and out of houses that might be illegal boarding houses. When I asked staff if they are tracking complaints and if they are actually relevant complaints to STRs, we were told that they are not sure.

Emotions are high over this issue, but I’m not sure why. Councillor Dennis is upset that local business owners are challenging his motion and advocating for themselves, calling them clowns.

But what I fail to see is how the information that Sean is spreading is false or misleading. He literally included video of Councillor Dennis speaking at council on this issue. The proposed legislation would make running an STR that isn’t your principle residence much more difficult, where a zoning change for the property would need required.

The huge red flag in this situation for me is what seems like an assault to small business owners in our community. You know who is the loudest proponent for urging council to start regulating STRs? The hotel industry (Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA)). I take very seriously the pressure from big industry lobbying municipal governments to regulate small businesses that results in benefiting big corporations and leaving the small business owners stuck behind layers and layers of red tape and bureaucracy just to operate. It will result in them just shutting down. What Councillor Dennis fails to comprehend here is that the proposed regulation if successful will have severe negative repercussions on the small businesses in Sarnia and strengthen the “special interest group” of the ORHMA.

Staff’s primary concern with STRs seems to be twofold, a) that we keep the residential neighborhood’s character in tact, and b) that we protect the residential housing stock from being absorbed by STRs. While I think these concerns are legitimate, there is a reasonable response to both. STRs do not change the residential character. In the hundred or so STRs that I’ve stayed in over my lifetime, every single one of them was in a residential neighborhood, they were kept up better than the rest of the homes on the block and I fit into the neighbourhood just fine. STRs is not the same kind of business as say an office. It is sort of a half-breed of a commercial use for a residential purpose. So while I understand the desire to keep residential neighbourhoods residential, I think that an STR fits into that quite well. As a response to the second concern, it was suggested that companies could buy up entire blocks of houses and rent them out commercially, but this seems more like a fearful response and not a plausible one. STRs have been virtually unregulated all along in Sarnia and we have never seen even a remote hint of this problem. This fear stems from larger cities that have millions of tourists a year and are trying to protect their residents.

Like many of us, we have concerns about affordable housing in Sarnia, and that is why I made a motion to open up the opportunities for secondary dwelling units on properties to help alleviate this.

There should be two other ideas to consider as well. First, Sarnia’s a unique community with many transient workers who come in for short terms who need a place to stay. The NOVA expansion is just one of hundreds of different situations that arise where workers need to show up in Sarnia and have by the week accommodation rentals and hotels are not suitable often lacking basic kitchen appliances and space. Second, the tourism industry in Sarnia is growing steadily and tourists are increasingly using platforms like Airbnb to have unique experiences in our city. I know that when I travel, I filter my search for results where I can stay in the entire house, not just a room or someone’s basement. I know three families in the last few years that came to Sarnia for a few weeks at a time for weddings and rented out an entire home to give a family a home base where they can cook, host and prepare for the wedding. The commercial need is very obvious and STR owners are making a honest living providing these services to folks and make Sarnia a more hospitable place to be.

Overall, I think basic licensing, safety inspections for fire and building and MAT tax collection are good and needed requirements to mandate for STRs. My main concern and what I just cannot support is restricting STRs only to homes that are occupied by the owner. This completely misses the point of STR rentals and is unnecessary regulation that stifles small business and gives the advantage to the big corporations. I hope that we can postpone any decisions, do significantly more research into our unique situation and make a more informed decision when we have considered everything. There should be no urgency whatsoever to force through regulation for something that is not a present problem and there is no indication that there is one approaching.

Below is a suggested framework from some citizens that operate STRs in the city and I think we need a comprehensive framework that will follow this basic structure.

4 thoughts on “Short Term Rentals in Sarnia”

  1. Thank you so much for being a voice of reason through this adventure. You support is noted and sincerely appreciated.

  2. Nathan,

    I totally agree with your assessments of the issue and your position on it.

    It is most unfortunate that Councillor Dennis took a run at a fellow Realtor for doing nothing other than make valid arguments against the requirement for short term rental units being owned and ‘lived in’.

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