Town councillors recently struggled over how to handle bed and breakfast operations with overdue licence renewals. Their next dilemma with the accommodation sector is expected to be dealing with the proliferation of unlicensed operators: those who openly advertise their premises outside municipal bylaws put in place to regulate them.
Allan Bisback, in his first term on councillor, has become an unofficial representative for the sector of licensed B&Bs — he and his wife were owners and operators of a B&B for 10 years, and Bisback was the vice-president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake B&B association during a time of turmoil for the owners, negotiating with the Town as it worked on regulations for the sector.
There has always been an issue of unlicensed operators, says Bisback, but with the growth of platforms for rentals such as Airbnb — that’s becoming the most well-recognized name but it’s only one of many — and a Town that relies on complaints to seek compliance, the issue has become one that can no longer be ignored.
And it’s not just in the Old Town. While that is where the majority of B&Bs operate, they are becoming increasingly popular, and more problematic, in Queenston and St. Davids, says Bisback.
He’s found 15 B&Bs advertised in the little village of Queenston, usually a case of rooms being rented in older homes as an added source of income; while in St. Davids, the number of new homes is creating a different situation.
Couples from out of town are seeking out retirement homes and purchasing before they’re ready to retire, using the intervening years to make some revenue off their future home — not an ideal situation for neighbours. He’s seen one such situation shut down, and is following others.
The Bisbacks, like many other couples, themselves moved to NOTL to open a B&B as part of their plan of easing into retirement. He continued to work for Canada Post, while his wife looked after guests. They had a 10-year plan, but it didn’t allow for how quickly the B&B would become busier than one person could handle, so he retired a little sooner than he had anticipated to help out. As they reached the 10-year mark, a house they had had an eye on since moving to NOTL became available, and they decided to purchase it and allow themselves time to enjoy it — for Bisback, that also meant the time to run for council.
As a councillor, he continues to say to council, as he did during the recent debate about revoking licenses for those behind in their fees, “Let’s be fair.”
During the days of the B&B task force, the association presented a list to the Town of unlicensed rental establishments, but nothing was done to shut them down.
These days, it’s not as if those operating outside the licensing bylaw are below the radar — they are easy to find, he says.
“With online advertisement, it’s not difficult to search them out.”
Town staff are “chasing down 20 to 25,” he estimates, following up on on complaints — most often about the number of cars parked in a driveway or on the road that signals there are rooms being rented, and a concern over the number of people coming and going — and Bisback has a list of a few he’s checking on, but that’s likely a drop in the bucket to what’s out there.
“I know there are quite a few, but I can’t quantify how many,” he says.
“Most licensed B&B owners are good operators, but it’s not fair to expect them to follow the regulations, while others do not.”
Licensing was put in place to enforce safety regulations, with inspections from the fire department — his three-room B&B, licensed for about $700 a year, required five fire extinguishers — and to ensure sufficient liability insurance.
But there is no way to check on issues such as fire codes and insurance for those operating outside the licensing regulation, says Bisback. In the research he’s done, all he can discover is that Airbnbs are encouraged to “operate within municipal legislation.”
“If I’m going to stay in a B&B, I’d like to know it’s safe.”
What he wants is a level playing field for all, but to get there, he says, the Town has to look at its process of regulation for all rental accommodations, and he hopes that conversation begins soon.
“The research has to come first. We have to know what we’re dealing with before we can proceed.”
The goal, he says, is that level playing field he’s after, by having every accommodation rental “regulated to the same degree.”
Other towns and cities are also experiencing problems with the growing number of accommodation rentals, Airbnbs and others, “but we live in a unique, premiere destination. Rates can be higher than other places. Visitors love coming to NOTL, and the B&Bs fit the community.”
Rick Jorgensen, also a former B&B owner and former president of the B&B association, urges the Town to take a pro-active role in seeking out those without licences and shutting them down.
When he started OliV, now with five restaurants and tasting rooms in Niagara and others across the country, he no longer had the time to run a B&B, but he has followed the explosion of Airbnbs and other platforms with interest.
He doesn’t hesitate to quantify the situation, saying he believes there are “hundreds” operating outside municipal bylaws.
Going back to the early days of licensing and regulations, he describes a “love/hate” relationship between operators and the Town, with its “inordinate amount of guidelines in place to protect the public.”
Unlicensed operators have always been a cause for concern, he says, but with the explosion of the sector over the last decade, he sees the possibility of there being more unlicensed than licensed. “The Town has to adjust to accommodate for that.”
It’s the job of town staff to go after them, put a stop to it, and make it fair for everyone — and like Bisback, he believes at the root of the problem is the Town’s complaint-driven bylaw enforcement policy.
While a lack of resources is usually cited as a barrier to a more forward approach, he says, “What resources do they need? These operators are advertising, they’re putting it out there. Either stop advertising, or pay for a licence.”