‘Ghost hotels’ in the Glebe –yes? no? maybe?

By Paul Thomson

Should Ottawa permit more commercial uses in residential areas like the Glebe? As it stands now, the zoning bylaw is clear that the only things permitted are home-based businesses and renting up to three bedrooms in one’s principal residence for a bed and breakfast. However we have seen numerous reports that hotel-type operations – so called “ghost hotels” – are spreading in the residential areas of Ottawa and other Canadian cities.

These use entire houses or apartments for short-term daily or weekly letting through websites such as Airbnb. Occupants stay for one, two or sometimes more nights. Depending on the operator’s willingness to screen their clients, occupants can be well behaved or they can be obnoxious and destructive. The media has reported on instances of “party houses,” or even illegal activities going on in such rentals. Abuses have been especially in the Market area of the city, which has the highest concentration of these rentals.

Here in the Glebe, there may not be as many “ghost hotels” as in the Market and Centretown, but along with Ottawa East and Ottawa South we have the next highest concentration according to a study done for the city. For those of us who are experiencing them nearby, we observe different people coming and going for much of the year, while they remain vacant during the slower tourist times. No owner or management is present because renters access the units using codes provided to them. Such units are often the subject of 311 complaints to the city for noise, garbage and maintenance issues.

This is a major departure from what we expect in a family residential neighbourhood like the Glebe. We expect houses or apartments to be occupied permanently by their owners or long-term tenants whom we can get to know if we choose.

Articles in the press have recorded the city’s reluctance to enforce the zoning bylaw in this matter in the face of a world-wide trend whose advocates call it part of the “sharing economy.” Other cities such as Vancouver and Toronto have recently enacted measures to try to bring this phenomenon under regulation and control. Ottawa has commissioned a consultant’s study to develop options on how to proceed. A draft report is promised by the end of the summer followed by additional consultations leading to production of a final report for city staff. The staff’s report will in turn go to the Community and Protective Services Committee for discussion and action recommendations to city council, hopefully before the end of the year.

Our Councillor, Shawn Menard, has criticized the city’s failure to enforce the existing zoning bylaw with respect to bed and breakfast operations and gone on record as opposing the use of Ottawa’s housing stock for short-term, hotel-type accommodation in the face of an overall shortage of rental housing.

The consultant’s discussion paper on this topic (they are also separately considering student housing and rental housing in general) presents an overview of the subject. You can find it at: here.

Many have used and enjoyed bed and breakfast operations, including the Airbnb hybrid, while travelling. But cities all over the world are re-evaluating whether the current situation is tenable. Do we want to restrict such operations in Ottawa entirely or merely confine “ghost hotels” to commercially zoned areas? This is the option allowed by our zoning bylaw. One thing is certain; the current situation that overlooks operations outside the existing bylaws cannot be tolerated.

We can anticipate strong resistance to enforcement of the zoning bylaw from the commercial interests of owners and agents who will fight attempts to reign in their operations. So if you have an opinion on this, you should speak out by taking part in the city’s consultations and letting Menard’s office know your concerns.

Paul Thomson, now retired, is a member of the Glebe Community Association’s Planning Committee and happily resident in the Glebe for 25 years.

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