The party that kept Becca Young’s family awake three nights in a row last month began about 8 p.m. on a Friday night next door to their 43rd floor unit.
Things were so raucous by 9:30 p.m. that evening, she launched into complaint mode.
Young said condo building staff later confirmed “the party was so loud that nobody heard security knocking.” Eventually security got through and some people left but things ramped up again a while later, she said.
By early Monday morning when the party was still going, Young had also reached out to the city’s 311 helpline and a short-term rental company’s hotline trying to find someone who could shut the gathering down.
It’s been nearly a year since Toronto cleared the legal hurdles it needed to move ahead on a regulatory and licensing system for short-term rentals. In that time, the biggest short-term rental platform in Canada, Airbnb, has also moved to ban party houses from advertising on its site and launched a series of measures, including a neighbour hotline, to deal with community concerns.
But none of the municipal or corporate rules — not even COVID-19 gathering restrictions — has stopped some downtown Toronto condos from operating as ghost hotels, say residents like Young.
A senior city official told the Toronto Star that people, some of them 905 residents, may be looking to party downtown in short-term rentals because restaurant and bars have been restricted during the pandemic and the cooler fall temperatures that make parks less hospitable.
Throughout the complaint process, Young said the onus was on her to confirm how many people were in the unit next door, to provide Airbnb’s hotline with a link to the condo listing off its own website — something she said is impossible — and to gauge whether the disturbance warranted police attention.
On Friday, two weeks after her initial complaint, she finally received an email from Airbnb telling her that the offending unit wasn’t rented on its platform that weekend. That is something she wishes the company could have told her before she spent time on her computer trying to search for it herself and she can’t understand how a tech-based platform couldn’t quickly access the information.
“I’m not a party detective,” she said.
For noise complaints or parties — “unless there’s imminent violence the response (from the city) is pretty minimal,” said Young, who lives on York Street, south of Bremner Boulevard.
Her building is dominated by investor owners, who don’t live there. That makes their rentals illegal by the city’s regulations that specify only principal residents can rent out entire homes on a short-term basis.
But inside the buildings, the city’s rules take a back seat to the condo board’s, said Carleton Grant, executive director of Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards.
“Under the condominium act the board has its own rules and they can actually be stricter or more permissive than the city,” he said.
Young calls short-term rental platforms “a complicated professional network of predators and profiteers.”
The unit owner has a formal relationship with the building making them legally responsible and accountable for the condo. But the owners hire professional short-term rental managers to advertise and host their properties on sites such as Airbnb and Expedia.
It is a thriving business that makes it easy for the condo owners to distance themselves from the problems in their units, she said.
When her family moved into the building in April 2018, Young didn’t know it was one of Toronto’s notorious ghost hotels.
She quickly became aware that many of the condos — all but two on her floor — were being rented to tourists. Those have given way to groups from outside the city renting a downtown weekend as a break from pandemic monotony.
Young says the condo is “everything you like about a hotel without any of the security and limits.”
Her unit is spacious with a spectacular view.
“It’s big enough for us and our two cats. Part of the reason we moved here is I can see where I work and my husband works and my son goes to school. It’s close to things he enjoys like the aquarium,” she said.
Those benefits have kept them there for two years.
“But this broke us,” she said of the September party. “We let our landlord know that we want to be out by the end of the year.”
In a document she plans to post online, Young describes, “a terrible, sleepless weekend of non-stop illegal parties during a pandemic and in a neighbourhood with spiking COVID-19 cases.”
Even after she learned that the party unit wasn’t rented on Airbnb she remained skeptical about the level of assistance the company offered.
“Why spend days and days asking me to find and send the host/listing information? If I’d known during the three-day party that it was not an Airbnb, I would have directed my resources differently,” said Young. “Why does it take two weeks to confirm this information, if they have it?”
Short-term rentals were banned by the province between April and June. Young says activity dropped off noticeably but some continued to operate anyway.
Carleton Grant, Toronto’s executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards at the city, says short-term rental hosts have until the end of the year to register with the city. At that point technological enforcement kicks in, rooting out investor owners who aren’t the homes’ principal residents. He expects that will eliminate more than 5,000 investor rentals.
About 400 of 600 online registration applicants have been approved as principal residents of their units, he said. Property owners who can’t prove they are the principal occupant, won’t be licensed.
“That is a key element of our policy and of our enforcement — our intent is that those investment properties go into long-term rentals — available, affordable housing in our city,” said Grant.
Meantime, he said, residents should report disturbances to 311 because the city’s bylaw enforcement has officially begun. Grant admits that COVID-related issues around gatherings, parks, beaches and restaurants has his squad of 200 bylaw officers stretched thin but says it is important that residents report incidents such as parties that could potentially spread the virus.
He also warned that enforcement is complex and not all complaints result in charges. Noise complaints, for example, require validation. That means a bylaw officer has to go to the complainant’s apartment and monitor the levels from the same position that the caller would have experienced. But bylaw officers don’t work as first responders so the monitoring couldn’t likely occur until a party was over. However, if parties are a regular occurrence it might be possible, he said.
“I think it will be better in six months once the registration will be fully in place, hopefully the virus is under control and we can dedicate the resources that we need to this issue,” he said.
Robert Bruins has lived at another ghost hotel at 300 Front St. for seven years. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the parties, he said.
“There’s a huge amount of big groups that come in. They come in with suitcases, bags from the LCBO, balloons. You know they’re having a party,” said Bruins. “Last Saturday was the worst one we’ve had — 10-plus individuals in the unit — door slamming every five minutes until 3 a.m.”
The noise woke his two-year-old son and then the party moved into the hallway. Cannabis smoke from neighbouring apartments bleeds in through the HVAC system, said Bruins.
He has sent letters of complaint about gatherings in the building during the pandemic to Mayor John Tory, Coun. Joe Cressy and Airbnb, but says he has been disappointed at the lack of response.
“I’m up against something so much bigger than me,” he said.
An Airbnb spokesperson said the company is doing everything possible to discourage parties in homes that rent on its platform, which is estimated to list about 90 per cent of short-term rentals in the Toronto area. In September it announced that it had suspended 40 Ontario listings that had generated complaints on its phone hotline and website. Last week it announced a Canada-U.S. prohibition on one-night reservations in entire homes over Halloween weekend.
Screening of high-risk reservations — including the rental of entire homes locally by some guests under 25 — has blocked 58,000 reservations in Canada, said Nathan Rotman with Airbnb.
While there are some legitimate complaints about Airbnb units, some disturbances are from rentals advertised on other rental sites, he said.
“Some hosts cross on various platforms. Some only book on ours. Identifying what they’re using is sometimes half the challenge,” said Rotman.
In most instances problem units can be identified simply and quickly, he said. But “in some cases we just don’t have the full address for the property.”
“We take a significant number of steps in order to try to find the unit especially when we hear about the party in order to look at the history to see if the host allowed for it in which case that would go against our rules or whether the guest broke the rules. Either one of those can lead to repercussions,” said Rotman.
Airbnb did not provide a number of complaints that have been registered on its neighbour tools.
Some short-term rental hosts advertise units to get a customer but then rent out condos in the same building, said Thorben Wieditz of Fairbnb, a coalition of academics, community and labour groups that have pushed for short-term rental regulation.
“That’s the grey market that is being enabled and people are cleverly exploiting,” he said.
While short-term rentals have negative effects on the housing market, the public health implications of the pandemic make the ghost hotel issue more urgent, said Wieditz.
He doesn’t blame short-term rental companies for the spike in COVID numbers in some downtown condo neighbourhoods. But he said their business model isn’t helping to mitigate the damage.
“There is something that puts people at risk in these towers and we shouldn’t allow a hotel business in these properties,” said Wieditz. “They should be in a position where their revenue model is not endangering neighbours. They should make sure homesharing is something that is not commercialized during the pandemic.”