The subletting of apartments, rooms or couches over the Internet is a recent phenomenon. The serious measures undertaken to discourage it might lead one to imagine that this activity is extremely harmful to society. The reality, however, is somewhat different, and the means deployed to combat this voluntary exchange are on an absolutely ridiculous scale.
The Plateau Mont-Royal borough employs private detectives to track down people who sublet their apartments over the Internet. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess!
It's as if we're in the world of Donnie Brasco, in which Johnny Depp plays Joseph D. Pistone, an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates a New York mafia family after having been recruited by a hit man. But now the gang to be infiltrated on the Plateau Mont Royal is not the mafia, but ordinary people trying to improve their economic situation by renting their apartments occasionally.
One of my colleagues used to be a big user of Airbnb, one of the platforms where one can offer housing, when he was in France. He was living in Marseille, in the southeast of the country, and was teaching economics two days a week in Toulouse, some 450 kilometres west of there. He was earning a living, but renting a room or staying in a hotel in Toulouse in addition to paying his rent in Marseille was out of the question. Subletting platforms allowed him to make his particular situation work financially.
Among his Airbnb hosts there were no hit men, and no tax evaders for that matter, just people who had a free room in their homes and were trying to make ends meet or simply meet other people.
One couple who rented him a room were artists who ran a small theatre troupe and who needed an Airbnb renter to meet their monthly commitments as much as he needed a host.
Another couple close to retirement whose son was studying in another city was renting a room less for the extra income than for the experience and the conversation.
There was a recently divorced father with a house he could no longer afford on his own, and a nurse with a huge house who carefully screened her renters, and where my colleague met other occupants from all around the world, just like in The Spanish Apartment.
The common thread connecting the different experiences he had is that they were all mutually agreed upon and they were all beneficial for the two parties involved. It was always win-win, and no one was conned.
The record of his rentals and the comments of his hosts on his visits show that he was well-behaved, respectful. It's almost as though his coming and going was hardly noticed. What possible legitimate reason could there be for municipalities to cook up schemes for discouraging such exchanges?
The laws that authorize Tourism Quebec to hand out completely unbelievable fines — from $2,500 to $25,000 according to Vincent Larouche writing in La Presse — limit the capacity of rental platforms to create value for society.
Housing spaces exist but are unused, and subletting platforms allow these resources to find takers. By creating a market for what would otherwise be dead capital, renters and hosts are better off than they would have been, and society as a whole is better off as well.
The methods being used to fight a phenomenon that is highly beneficial for society, and for people who are sometimes truly in need, are completely ridiculous. Is it really necessary to place a private detective on the trail of every student who has a sofa to rent on Airbnb? Like many of you, my answer is no.
Jasmin Guénette is Vice President of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.