A new organization of property owners has formed to make sure visitors have access to safe, enjoyable home-like spaces, following a city action last year that made short-term vacation rentals legal in Niagara Falls.
Carroll Schultz Reetz, who for 10 years has run a hostel in the city, is the president of the Niagara Falls Tourist Home Association, which is seeking members who operate hostels, bed and breakfasts or short-term vacation rentals in the city.
Prior to the passing of a city code last year, there was no regulation for property owners who offered rooms or homes to visitors via international websites like Airbnb and VRBO.
In Niagara Falls, as in many places around the world, short-term rentals of homes and apartments have become increasingly popular because vacationers can stay in an environment that often includes kitchens and multiple bedrooms and other comforts of home, sometimes including a backyard.
The city's director of Community Development, Seth Piccirillo said there wasn't a great debate about allowing the short-term rentals prior to the creation of the code in 2017. "I think everyone saw the value of it," he said.
"Our hotels did not object to it because they saw there was a different type of traveler looking for short term rental rather than a hotel," he added, explaining that such a traveler likes the idea of a more homey setting and the hotels recognize that.
Piccirillo said the city worked with Schultz Reetz, prior to the formation of the owners group, to come up with a code that would protect the quality of available owner-rentals in the city and the safety of visitors.
Among the regulations, the code states that short-term rentals can only be one or two-family dwellings, and must have a special permit by the city's zoning board, as well as a certificate of compliance for safety features such as smoke detectors and exits, and a certificate showing completion of an exam from Destination Niagara USA.
Colin Ligammari, who buys, renovates and sells homes, recently joined the group after turning one of her completed homes into an Airbnb. The house, located in LaSalle, was vacant and boarded up when she bought it with a partner, and has since been fully restored into an clean and comfortable rental now called the Red Door Inn.
She and Schultz Reetz, speaking for their membership of about 15 property owners, said their concern is those who run vacation rental homes illegally.
Schultz Reetz pointed to a recent incident in Mexico where an American family rentering a home from a vacation rental site, died because carbon monoxide detectors weren't up to code.
She estimates about 75 percent of the houses and apartments available for short term vacation rentals in the city are illegal.
Both the city and the association want to support those short-term rental owners who wish to become legitimate. They also want to assist those who wish to get into the business of short-term rentals. Those who contact the city or the association will be able to learn all they need to know about how to go about starting a short-term rental or running one legally, and keeping visitors safe and happy.
"We want to make sure we're guiding people in the right direction," Ligammari said.
The city has contacted the owners of 45 properties believed to be out of compliance, which they found for rent on short-term rental websites. Many times the address is not given on the listing, a little detective work has to be done to locate the property owner.
Piccirillo said 23 recipients responded to the letter, but 25 did not and further notices will be sent.
He noted that the city has record of 31 short-term rentals and that 25 have obtained their special permit, which at a cost of $140 per permit, equals $3,500.
"We're making sure people do register so we know these places are safe and habitable," he said. A bad experience, he said, "could ruin somebody's feeling about the destination. We don't want that."
He appreciates the work of the Niagara Falls Tourist Home Association. "They want to make sure our entire market has a good reputation for short-term rental," he said. "We all win when Niagara Falls has a reputation for good short-term rentals."
Both the city and the association want to support those short-term rental owners who wish to become legitimate. They also want to assist those who wish to get into the business of short-term rentals. Those who contact the city or the association will be able to learn all they need to know about how to go about starting a short-term rental or running one legally.
Piccirillo also said the new code presents an new business opportunity for the residents of Niagara Falls. "It offers local people an opportunity to benefit from the tourism industry," he said. "We'll tell you exactly what you need to do."
In the meantime, the city will continue to hunt those short-term vacation rental properties not up to code. "There is some detective work involved in making sure these places are safe and habitable," Piccirillo said.
For more information about the Niagara Falls Tourist Home Association, visit www.nftha.org.