The town of Wasaga Beach has been sending letters to "illegal" cottage rentals, some of whom have been operating without trouble for decades, in an attempt to squash the practice of using homes in residentially zoned neighbourhoods as seasonal income properties. This action has the property owners weighing their options as to what they will do next.
While some residents applaud Council's move to eliminate illegal rentals, others are shaking their heads in disbelief. Many people who moved to Wasaga Beach from cities around Ontario wax nostalgic about how they learned to love this town through childhood trips to cottages which have dotted the well-treed streets adjacent to the shores of Wasaga Beach. Some of these cottages have been quietly operating since before the Town was incorporated in 1974 and most visitors would not know if they were legal - or not legal.
Of course the current problem stems from the fact that especially during recessionary times, the legal rentals are finding themselves not filled to capacity. If there was enough to go around and our by-law department could quickly squash the negligent properties which have cared little about how their activities have affected neighbours, we wouldn't be talking about this today. Most towns have an underground economy of rentals. When I lived in Toronto, it was (perhaps still is) basement apartments and weekly room rentals. But for those who understand the laws of supply and demand, we know threats of fines will do little to solve the problem. It will just drive the economy further underground which will make the problem properties harder to identify.
Wasaga Beach by-law had a puzzling approach to complaints about noisy, out of control properties. I have long remarked that it was odd that the by-law department would know how many times a person has made a complaint to their department about a noisy neighbour but be blissfully unaware from season to season about how often a particular property had been the object of complaints. If they were keeping records about properties who inflict misery on their neighbours and moved swiftly to fine the owners, noise and other serious by-law infractions could be resolved. One complaint should have resulted in a warning, a second complaint could have been a fine. Eventually it would get too expensive to be inconsiderate to your neighbours. And this system wouldn't just work for illegal rentals, it would work just as effectively for the legal ones too; some of whom are also guilty of ignoring what their guests are inflicting on neighbours.
The reality is, Wasaga Beach is changing. It is becoming more residential. However, tourism is our only economy and right now it's not looking good. I've discussed the issue with many residents in recent months and most of us seem to agree. We like tourists. We want them to come and enjoy Wasaga Beach but we want them to be respectful. That's not too much to ask is it? Blue Mountain seems to have figured out how to make that happen. Collingwood doesn't seem to suffer from the same issues. They became the new location for Wakestock; a festival which could not be managed in a civilized manner here in Wasaga Beach. What makes us so different?
Residents of Wasaga Beach are embarrassed right now. Beach 1 is showing the effects of years of neglect. The fire on Main Street in 2007, the bankrupt properties which never really recovered, the big, dreamy development that never materialized, the vacant cover-less dome, another fire on Main Street in 2011. Nobody has been held to account and while Council should be developing strong policies to prevent developers from buying up and then neglecting important parcels of property, instead it feels like their mandate has been to further harm the tourist industry by clamping down on illegal rentals. It would appear they needed a scapegoat as too many people were unhappy about the lack of movement to clean up the delinquent Beach 1 area which is a favourite for tourists.
This is not to say that there should not be laws about these rentals - but why now? Why when Wasaga Beach is in the middle of an image and economic crisis? These rentals have existed unchecked for decades. Real estate agents spent years gleefully telling potential property owners that they would be able to use their income property as a vacation rental. Entire industries sprung up to service these rentals; plumbers, electricians, carpenters, lawn maintenance, cleaning services and more. In the interest of full disclosure, when I finally got tired of writing to council and the local newspaper about why illegal rentals were not kept under control, I too adopted a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude. I will lose a few rental listings but I know they'll just go to other sources. I'm not angry about that. Listings come and go, I'll survive.
Council members past and present have owned or still own income properties. The tired excuse that it's okay to rent just to family and/or friends feels exactly the same as renting to strangers for your neighbours. A residential zone generally means that the people who live there will have their address clearly displayed on their driver's licence. I don't think people who move to a residential zone expect that the home next to them will be passed around to aunts, uncles, cousins, distant relatives and people you know from work. It's time to call that spade a spade. Renting and loaning is the same thing when it comes to what people expect when they buy into a residentially zoned neighbourhood. Even if no money is exchanged, the home is not being used for the purpose it was zoned for.
|And while we are on the subject of this present scapegoating of illegal rentals. Let's also talk about what commercial zoning means. It does not allow for the rental of units meant for tourists to be turned into makeshift apartment rentals. This is the saddest of all zoning abuses in Wasaga Beach because it forces the poorest residents to move to a motel or hotel in the off season, only to be evicted when the units can be rented for higher profits. I spoke to one family who was renting at a local motel during the winter but had to pick up and move to a campground for the entire summer until the prices were affordable again. One of the main complaints by commercial businesses about illegal rentals is that they don't have to abide by commercial zoning rules and can avoid the expensive taxes, inspections, insurance and higher utility rates; yet they forget that they are neglecting to pay school taxes for those families who occupy their units in the off season.|
You see the problem here in Wasaga Beach is that our tourist season is so short that everyone who lives here must find ways to make enough of a living to keep their lights on and put food on the table. If you don't own a business here, it usually means juggling several jobs; one in Wasaga, another in Collingwood and perhaps a third someplace else. Whether you are trying to make your legal business viable and balance the books in the face of rising expenses and a mountain of bureaucratic rules - or trying to pay for that income property which will serve as your retirement nest egg, there has to be some compassion for why these underground industries exist. Wasaga Beach simply has few financial options for all but the lucky minority. In my business I have the rare opportunity to talk to people on both sides of the issue and I have empathy for all of them. They are simply trying not to go bankrupt. The last thing Wasaga Beach needs is more "for sale" signs and empty commercial units.
There is also another problem that will rear its head once tourists realize they can't rent their favourite private cottage. Tourists have often complained that the legal hotels/motels and cottage courts are not modern enough for their needs. Wasaga Beach simply hasn't taken the concerns of visitors seriously enough.
A few administrations ago when a
company was contracted to put together a survey about what tourists
really thought of Wasaga Beach, some of the results weren't flattering.
Council's response? Throw the survey company out of council chambers and
tell them that there is nothing wrong with Wasaga Beach. This survey
basically brought up the fact that legal rentals in Wasaga Beach aren't
keeping pace with their counterparts in other parts of Ontario. Even
today some still have old (second-hand) furniture, overused carpets, no
cable tv, no internet. While some legal accommodation owners are doing
all they can to modernize, they are being hurt by the lowest common
denominator. While legal lodgings are subject to inspection, there is no
code to alert tourists whether they are getting a half star or 3 star
accommodation. It's a crap shoot for tourists.
And while Council spends its time trying to rid the town of mostly decent, but incorrectly zoned rentals, the Beach 1 area is still in limbo. The entire area showing neglect. Residents are so angry with the lack of action in getting things cleaned up that some have been mumbling that there is a "closed for tourists" sign in Wasaga Beach.
This action of killing illegal rentals may turn out to be a "be careful what you wish for" scenario. Here are my predictions for what the new heavy handed fines will produce:
a) Rentals will be residential/monthy as most of these home owners can't afford to carry their income properties without renters. You'll have an influx of new neighbours who stay for a while and leave when it pleases them.
b) Some properties will go up for sale and those who cannot afford to hang on will end up owned by the banks.
c) Some of these cottages will be for sale at cut rate prices as they don't want to surrender their assets to the bank, and it may drive down the value of your home.
d) Tourists will stay away because many complain that these cottages were their preferred tourist lodging. People who liked to stay in cottages aren't interested in staying in a motel/hotel/apartment/B&B or campground and will choose another destination like Grand Bend or Sauble.
e) Noise, fire and other disruptive issues will still exist as there seems to be no law to prevent residential properties from being loaned to teenage relatives.
f) Illegal rentals will continue to exist but they will go underground, advertising in places throughout the internet that will be difficult to find for authorities... but don't worry - enough renters will find them.
g) Council will next go after legal businesses who rent to residents during the off-season.
Had I been there during the discussions, I would have suggested that they recognize that some neighbourhoods (anything north of Mosley Street) are not true residential zones like the Blueberry Trails or the Wasaga Sands developments. They are a combination of converted cottages (like mine), or summer only structures with no insulation. Many of the people who live in this part of Wasaga Beach have learned that a rental property doesn't have to be a nightmare. Although I've had my fair share of disruptive neighbours, there seems to be peace on my street now. The real problem has always been identifying the bad properties (both legal and illegal) and dealing with them swiftly and firmly. Strengthening our By-Law department would go a long way towards this goal.
And if Wasaga Beach is to continue to be a viable and welcoming destination for tourists, this Council may have to look at the idea of rezoning seasonal cottage areas to allow for some controlled commercial useage. Few of these rentals would operate outside the law if there was some way for them to please the powers that be. It was not that long ago when we B&B's were discussed. Perhaps this is another type of zoning which should be considered.
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