Airbnb ‘pirates’ are hijacking real permits to post bad listings — and some Torontonians are fed up

Toronto Airbnb host Allan Eisen says he’s at his wits’ end with the City of Toronto after his Airbnb listing was taken down 16 times in the last five months.

At least one of those instances is because someone used his permit number, which is accessible on the city’s website, to post an unregistered listing.

When his listing was taken offline last month, Eisen says he was told it was because he’s being investigated for violating the 180-day rule, which prohibits short-term rentals from being booked for more than 180 nights in a year. But Eisen says he makes sure his Airbnb stays within the limit.

“What I heard from [the bylaw officer] was absolutely mind-blowing. I was shocked when he told me that somebody else was using my license number,” he said.

Asked if that could be pushing his listing over the 180-mark, Eisen says the bylaw officer told him, “Yes, that could be the case.'”

Allan Eisen rents out his primary residence in downtown Toronto when he's away from the city. He says the city has removed the Airbnb listing 16 times in the last five months.
Allan Eisen rents out his primary residence in downtown Toronto when he’s away from the city. He says the city has removed the Airbnb listing 16 times in the last five months. (Submitted by Allan Eismen)

All 6,248 short-term operator registration numbers and the first three digits of the corresponding postal code are publicly available on the City of Toronto’s website. The city says it’s aware of instances in which people are accessing the numbers and using them to post unregistered listings on Airbnb, which is leading to some legitimate listings being taken down as the city tries to enforce compliance.

The director of Fairbnbhosts.ca, a not-for-profit that works to protect the interests of Toronto’s registered Airbnb operators, says a city staff member told him they are chasing “pirates” and using a “whack-a-mole” approach to remove the unregistered listings. 

“It’s a very big concern,” George Emerson said.

Meanwhile, some hosts are still having issues that CBC Toronto first reported on in the summer; when hosts and guests were scrambling after bookings were abruptly cancelled and listings taken down due to minor discrepancies in how hosts’ addresses were listed on their city registration versus their Airbnb profile. Hosts say the bookings are no longer being cancelled, but their listings are still being removed.

In Toronto, a short-term rental operator can only rent out their principal residence and must register with the city.

City says rules protect Toronto’s rental stock 

Eisen’s listing was most recently taken down last week. An email from the city claims his address isn’t an exact match, but Eisen is adamant it’s correct. He says each time his listing has been removed, he makes the changes required by the city, but then it happens again.

“In the meantime, you’re out of business,” Eisen said. “There shouldn’t be such an aggressive approach to just a blanket ‘let’s just delist all these listings.'”

Executive director of the city’s Municipal Licensing and Standards division Carleton Grant says hosts’ information must be accurate so the city can verify listings.

Carleton Grant, the city's executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards, says the cases involving people using real permit numbers to post fake or unregistered listings are complex.
Carleton Grant, the city’s executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards, says the cases involving people using real permit numbers to post fake or unregistered listings are complex. (Yan Theoret/CBC)

“The rules are in place to protect the housing stock and the rental stock, but allow people to participate in home sharing,” Grant said in an interview. 

In a statement, Airbnb’s regional Canadian lead Nathan Rotman says the company understands some hosts are frustrated with the city’s enforcement practices.

“We continue to be in active discussions with the city to ensure that registered listings are not inadvertently removed by City of Toronto bylaw officers,” Rotman said.

Concerns ‘bad actors’ are skirting rules

Eisen says he’s alarmed that anyone can access his permit number on the city’s website and says they should be removed. 

“This isn’t a hack. The city’s openly giving this information to people by just putting it on a website. It’s very shocking,” he said.

While an operator’s registration number, city ward and first three letters of postal codes associated with properties are available; full addresses are visible.

Grant says having the information on the city’s open data portal is required by the city. It shows the government is being transparent and allows the city and others to ensure listings are legitimate, he says. 

An example of the message hosts are receiving when the city removes an Airbnb listing.
An example of the message hosts are receiving when the city removes an Airbnb listing. (Submitted by Emil Glassbourg)

But Emerson says it’s worrying people who aren’t licensed are skirting the rules by using someone’s else’s permit.

“If the city is trying to crack down on bad actors, why are they enabling the same bad actors?” he said

“We are small, small business operators and we have been vetted and checked out by the city, and therefore we place reliance on the city to be able to list these properties.”

As part of ongoing compliance audits by the city, 2,626 Airbnb listings were taken down on November 10; 65 per cent of them removed due to missing or inaccurate information or wording that didn’t match; 32 per cent for breaking the 180-day rule and the remaining three per cent for having expired permits, according to the city. 

Grant says hundreds of listings are posted daily by people who are not registered with the city. He says it’s hard to say exactly how many registered operators’ listings were taken down as a result of people using their permit numbers.

That’s because he says many hosts whose listings were removed had incorrect information on their listings in addition to their permit being used by someone else.

“These [cases] are complicated, they are complex,” he said. “We need to do the necessary legwork to understand what’s happened and then take appropriate action.”

Asked whether the city would consider removing the permit numbers from the public website, Grant says since only a small percentage of hosts are affected, the numbers must justify the change.

He says the city will continue to look into ways to stop unlicensed people from posting listings using other hosts’ permits.

‘Beyond overkill,’ says advocate

Emerson says it’s nonsensical that the city can shut down a listing due to something as simple as the word ‘street’ and short form ‘st’ being seen as not matching. 

“It’s beyond overkill,” he said.

Grant says while the details may seem minor, they’re necessary to verify whether a registration is legitimate.

“We equate it to getting on an airplane and you show your ticket and your passport and they have to match,” he said. 

Only about 15 per cent, or more than 400, of the listings that were taken down last month are back online, while the rest, like Emil Glassbourg’s, are still being investigated. 

Emil Glassbourg says his Airbnb listing was taken down last month and he's still waiting for it to be active again.
Emil Glassbourg says his Airbnb listing was taken down last month and he’s still waiting for it to be active again. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

He discovered his listing was taken offline because his postal code was off by one digit and his property was listed in the wrong category.

“I’m in a financial predicament, which could have easily been solved,” said Glassbourg, who says his only current source of income is his Airbnb listing.

He’s now waiting for an inspection on December 28th and says he hopes his listing will be back up then, but knows it’s not guaranteed.

“Now I’m out of business without an income,” he said. 

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