PORTLAND — City Manager Jon Jennings said Wednesday that city staff will not take enforcement action on zoning violation complaints against short-term rental units like those offered through Airbnb until the City Council clarifies its policy on the issue.
Jennings announced the city’s new approach on short-term rentals at a meeting of the council’s Housing Committee. He asked committee members to fast-track a policy discussion on short-term rentals and hopes to bring the issue to the council for a vote within the next three months. Currently, short-term rentals without correct permitting violate Portland’s zoning rules.
“We would like to move this up as quickly as possible,” Jennings said.
City staff will inform property owners of any complaints and catalog them until the council determines a clear policy, Jennings said. Complaints about life-safety issues will continue to be investigated and enforced, he said. Existing enforcement cases will be put on hold, he said.
“Essentially, all we are doing is delaying enforcement until the council can give us clear guidance on what we should be enforcing,” Jennings told the committee.
“It’s a very tough area for city staff to be put in because we do not have a clear set of rules to go by,” he said.
Platforms like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway allow property owners to rent a room or their entire home to customers who contact them through one of those online portals. The popularity of unregulated short-term rentals has skyrocketed in recent years, provoking a backlash from hotels complaining about unfair competition and advocates concerned about the loss of housing for full-time residents.
Owners of short-term rentals dispute that their businesses are real competitors to hotels and don’t believe they are seriously affecting the rental housing market.
Cities and states across the country are tangling with how to legislate short-term rentals, and several Maine communities are taking steps to reign in or regulate the practice.
On Wednesday, Jennings said short-term rentals were “an extremely hot topic” in all parts of the city.
According to the website Airdna that tracks Airbnb website data, there are 407 active rentals in Portland. Only 250 of those have 10 or more reviews, indicating they are frequently used by customers.
The issue has been bubbling for years and was one of the top concerns voiced at a housing forum in April.
Short-term rentals are technically prohibited in most of the city’s residential zones and need city permitting to operate in other areas. Portland began enforcing zoning rules on rental operators last year, and has issued orders to at least four property owners to cease operating. One owner later gained the required permitting to keep his rental.
The city has since received more complaints about short-term rentals, Jennings said.
The problem is that city staff is trying to enforce rules created far before the advent of online rentals, Jennings told the committee Wednesday.
“Innovation has gotten ahead of us in terms of our current ordinances,” he said.
Last month, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals tabled an appeal from an Airbnb operator. Board members said they did not want to rule on an interpretation of zoning rules until the City Council decides to revise regulations for short-term rentals.
Ken Thomas, who appealed the city’s enforcement order, told the committee the decision to stay enforcement allowed operators like himself to “come out of the dark” and discuss policy without worrying they could be targeted for breaking zoning rules.
“I think it is very important we are regulated, but regulated intelligently and in the best interest of the city,” he said.
The Housing Committee has amended its work plan so it will discuss short-term rentals at its Sept. 14 meeting. As of last month, it was unclear when the committee might take up the issue, considering the other pressing needs facing Portland, which is in the middle of an acute housing shortage and booming rental market.
Wednesday night, committee Chairwoman Jill Duson said she was reluctant to discuss short-term rentals until committee members had considered policies to address the urgent issue of housing insecurity. The committee is scheduled to discuss topics such as rent control, discrimination against housing voucher holders and minimum notification rules at its meeting later this month.
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