The list of short-term rentals registered with the Nova Scotia government is shorter than expected so far.
When the province started preparing to regulate the short-term rental market two years ago, it estimated there were between 2,500 and 3,000 unlicensed short-term rental properties across the province listed on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO.
Last year, the government passed the Tourist Accomodation Registration Act, which requires the owners of those properties to register their units and pay an annual fee between $50 and $150, based on the number of bedrooms.
The registry also applies to hotels, motels and any other tourist accommodation that has a roof, rents beds for 28 days or fewer and isn't the host's primary residence.
Starting April 1, all accommodations that met the criteria were required to register. But only 542 properties had done so by the end of July.
Business Minister Geoff MacLellan said his department had always intended on taking a "slow walk" toward a complete registry, but the early numbers are "much lower" than he anticipated.
MacLellan attributed the sluggish start to COVID-19, which has wreaked havoc on the tourism industry.
He said the short-term rental registry dropped down the priority list almost as soon as it came into existence. The province quickly paused its plans for an information campaign.
"There's a lot of work to do to get everyone up to date on the regulations and the importance of registering under the new program," he said.
MacLellan said he would wait for the industry to stabilize before returning his department's attention to the short-term rental registry.
"Our discussion, it's more about … surviving through this disastrous tourism season," he said.
For its part, the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia said it's already been "very active" in sharing information about the registry with its members.
The registration fee is waived for the first year, which leaves businesses no excuse, according to TIANS.
"We encourage consumers to ensure they are staying at registered properties," a spokesperson for the association said in an email.
Impacts on housing
When the province introduced the idea of the registry, MacLellan said it was meant to "level the playing field" for all tourism operators.
Additionally, he said the data would help his colleagues at Housing Nova Scotia determine the impact of short-term rentals on the rental housing market.
That impact has been closely watched in some parts of the South Shore, where affordable housing availability has dwindled while short-term rental availability has risen.
Rachel Bailey, mayor of the town of Lunenburg, called short-term rentals a "significant disruptor" in her town.
"Of primary concern is the negative impact it has had on the availability of long term housing," Bailey said in an email.
She said the "appropriate response is still a work in progress for us."
Kira Curtis, who lives in Riverport and owns a restaurant in Mahone Bay, said she's well aware of the pressure short-term rentals are putting on housing in her community. She said she's aware because she recruits staff from out of town and out of province, and they often have a hard time finding a place to live.
She said she has grappled with her complicity in the issue because, in addition to running Mateus Bistro, she owns a small property in town that she lists on Airbnb.
"My solace in me listing that is … it's not able to be rented year-round and it's a very small little place," she said.
Curtis said she doesn't think she's competing with the long-term rental housing market because the bachelor-style loft space she rents out is only habitable in the summer months, and she doesn't believe she's competing with conventional B&Bs and hotels in the area because she doesn't offer the same amenities.
Still, Curtis's property does qualify for the new provincial registry, but she isn't among the 542 operators who have registered. She hadn't heard about it until CBC contacted her.
"I did not know it existed … I suppose I'll give them the, you know, it's a chaotic year. So that story could easily have gotten lost. I think it's important. I wish I would have known or [had] a letter sent out," said Curtis.
The value of the registry
Lisa Ryan, the rural housing development co-ordinator for a non-profit-led housing support program in Lunenburg and Queens counties, is eager to see the data the province collects through the registry.
She said the long-term rental market in the area is "almost non-existent" right now, and "concrete and current data" will help the community find solutions.
"I think [the registry] is an excellent way for the government to kind of get an idea of how many short-term rentals are within our area and how they'll be regulated," Ryan said.
She said it's imperative to find solutions that work both for the housing sector and the tourism industry, which is an important part of the rural economy.
"Our communities, especially along the South Shore, do rely on the tourism industry to bring income for jobs, but I think the struggle that most employers are seeing is they can't have employees work their jobs if they can't find housing for their employees."
Ryan said she's also "very intrigued" to see what the registry reveals about where money spent on short-term rentals is going.
"I think this will be very telling to find out exactly how many of these short-term rentals are locally owned and how many are owned by companies outside of Nova Scotia."
Ryan said she hopes the province takes the penalties for not registering seriously. Operators who don't register can face a fine of up to $1,000 per day to an annual maximum of $7,500.
The province has not issued any fines yet and says it won't until the "education phase" is over. MacLellan said there's no timeline for that.
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