Scare Better: Exploring the Safety of Airbnb in Toronto

As the share economy struggles to make its — permanent — place in metropolitan cities around the globe, concerns for managing an unregulated service and maintaining security continue to grow.

By Jessica Murray

Airbnb rental in Toronto. Image courtesy of www.airbnb.ca
Airbnb rental in Toronto. Image courtesy of www.airbnb.ca

 

The hassles of booking transportation, accommodation and budgeting for your travels are stressful enough without having to worry about where – or who – you’ll be bunking with at the end of the night. Cassandria Taormina, 21, had a scare like this when she used Airbnb to book a loft in Montreal this past summer.

“On the way to the loft we passed an abandoned building, and I said to my boyfriend, ‘Imagine if we ended up in that, and the ad turned out to be fake’,” recalls Taormina. “Those are definitely things you think about after using Airbnb.” When she and her boyfriend arrived at their building, they phoned the owner and he instructed them to meet him at the back of the building to pick up the keys. “My boyfriend thought we were going to get jumped and it was all a set up — we were terrified,” says Taormina. “We got the and entered the loft yet we felt so unsafe. We were actually scared to leave the loft thinking we would get robbed, and coming home at night was really scary.”

When the shared accommodation site started up six years ago, it changed the travel game forever and raised issues regarding the legality of the service, and more importantly the safety – for both hosts and renters. Airbnb offers places to rent in more than 190 different countries, thousands of which are nightly rentals in private homes – areas that aren’t zoned for conducting business or providing accommodation.

Some states fighting for Airbnb to become legal, such as San Francisco, have passed by-laws allowing it. Some cities such as New York are still banning the service, citing that nearly three-quarters of Airbnb rentals in the city are illegal. In September, an anti-Airbnb campaign started in New York city called Share Better. Founded by a coalition of elected officials, housing activists and hotel owners, Share Better’s intent is to expose the safety violations that Airbnb poses. Share Better recently released a map of New York City on their website showing where sex offenders and building code violations are in contrast with where Airbnb accommodations are located. This week, the group announced that they plan to launch a West Coast coalition called Share Better SF in San Francisco.

In Ontario, there are no laws explicitly outlawing renting out your home for short-term rentals, however many apartment and condominium facilities have regulations against short-term rentals. Another major concern is that renters do not always obtain the permission of their landlord before posting their property for rent on Airbnb. With an uncontrolled service such as Airbnb, the main concern with the service is how safety and security will be ensured.


What Toronto would look like if given the “Share Better” treatment.
View Registered Sex Offenders in Ontario in a full screen map

“In an unregulated environment there are many risks,” says Tony Elenis, the president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association. “With hotel management and employees, [we] are trained to ensure all regulations are followed – it’s the law. [Our] focus is to follow through with meeting guest safety.” According to Elenis, safety is a top priority for hotel guests and employees, which is maintained through legislation and a vast regulatory framework. The Toronto Public Health Unit is responsible for food safety at the municipal level, and the Ministry of Labour enforces safety at a provincial level. There are many regulations that the accommodation industry must follow, including appropriate licensing, following Ontario codes for fire, building and human rights, as well as a number of acts under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

With Airbnb, there is little safety assurance or collateral if something goes wrong. The only form of protection for hosts is Airbnb’s Host Guarantee, which can reimburse the host for up to $900,000 CAD in damages in the event of guest damages to the property. As for the safety of the renter, Airbnb provides some tips on staying safe, however the biggest security measure they provide for potential renters is the profile and reviews of different rentals. “The website makes it pretty easy to tell whether a situation is going to be comfortable or not because the reviewing process is so expedient so there’s always a lot to read,” says Giulia De Vita, a 24-year-old renter from Vancouver. The moral of the story: the best bet for potential renters is to extensively read the reviews, ratings and host profiles. “You do have to have a certain amount of trust in people,” says De Vita. “But you are also paying them, so they have some responsibility to you as well.”
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