Letters from Airbnb to Sidney council raises questions about authenticity

Sidney council considers fate of short-term vacation rentals Monday

Submissions to Sidney council suggest overwhelming opposition to plans to prohibit short-term vacation rentals, but also an organized campaign by Airbnb and interested parties.

Sidney council Monday will consider a bylaw that proposes to ban all short vacation rentals in Sidney, while also restricting additional bed-and-breakfast uses. Sixteen out of 17 written submissions from the public express opposition to the proposed move. This said, eight submissions come from self-described members of the “Airbnb community” in the shape of letters that appear identical in suggesting a coordinated effort.

“Short-term rental platforms like Airbnb allow hosts like me to earn extra income that makes my life more affordable and helps me support my family,” reads the letter from Leona Ballman. “But it’s not just about me. I spend the money I earn on Airbnb right here in my community. And more than that, I help support local businesses by sending my guests to neighbourhood stores and restaurants.”

RELATED: Sidney councillor calls for ban of all short-term rentals

The passage — which does not directly mention Sidney — also appears in the letters from Kinza Schmidt-Paborn, John Jones, Darcy Schmidt-Paborn, Leesa Lightburn, Kristen Bovee, Cindy Levesque and Clayton Edwards. This identical phrasing — which appears in other passages as well— raises questions about the sincerity, not to mention the authenticity of the authors, questions hardened by the fact that none of the signatories indicated from where they wrote their respective letters.

Council also received a letter from Nathan Rotman, public policy manager for Airbnb Canada, in which he expressed his company’s disappointment, while also offering to discuss alternatives. “Across Canada we’ve worked with municipalities to share best practices and discuss the benefits of home sharing in communities large and small,” he said.

While the opposition from Airbnb is neither surprising nor unbecoming, the volume and nature of the letters cannot help but leave the impression that the company is trying to exaggerate opposition toward the measure in a methodical, calculated manner.

Two other letters opposed to the move also closely resemble each other, further cementing questions raised by the Airbnb letters.

“I am writing to register my disappointment with your recent (and hasty) decision to ban short-term rentals in Sidney which allowed little time for public input and consideration of the impact,” said a letter from Debra Sheets. The same opening phrase also appears in the letter from Jennifer Lee, with other similarities appearing throughout both submissions.

The Peninsula News Review has reached out to Nathan Rotman and will update this story accordingly.

Council will consider the bylaw after Coun. Peter Wainwright had raised the issue. His initial notice of motion filed in late April says that short-term rentals such as Airbnb “pose significant competition for hotels and commercial lodging operators in Sidney” that do not pay commercial property taxes and invest “significantly less” capital. They also “provide less employment opportunities, and are not subject to the same rules and responsibilities.”

The proposed amendments have received first and second reading in late May.

The question of allowing short-term rentals has long vexed municipal governments across Canada, including British Columbia and the Greater Victoria region.

Housing advocates have accused commercial short-term rental platforms generally and Airbnb specifically of compounding affordable housing shortages in various communities including the City of Victoria. Commercial hotel operators, meanwhile, naturally see short-term rental platforms as competitors, drawing away business through lower rates and greater flexibility.

Efforts to regulate the short-term rental industry on both the municipal and provincial level have gained strength in recent years, with Airbnb now paying municipal and provincial taxes.


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