Portland is facing a backlash from residents who want the city to enforce zoning rules against short-term rentals such as those advertised on Airbnb, saying the practice is disrupting neighborhoods that are off-limits to bed-and-breakfasts and hotels.
“Essentially, you have commercial businesses moving deeply into residential areas,” said Celeste Bard, who lives on Prospect Street in the Deering Highlands neighborhood. In the past six months, at least three single-family homes in her neighborhood have been converted into short-term rentals, which she sees as unlicensed hotels, Bard said.
“The city is allowing this to happen without enforcing their own code of ordinances,” she said.
Bard is not the only one demanding action. Another group of residents hired an attorney to take up their case and has been lobbying city councilors on the issue.
Portland has been grappling with how to manage the surge of unregulated short-term rentals booked from independent hosts through online platforms such as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway. According to Airbnb, there are 500 active hosts in Portland and 651 active listings.
Critics worry that short-term rentals take up year-round apartments, drive up housing prices and disrupt community character. Defenders say the practice provides homeowners with revenue to pay for bills and maintenance and gives visitors more options for accommodations.
Cities around the world have struggled to regulate short-term rentals in recent years as residents voice similar concerns about the effect on housing availability, cost and safety. San Francisco and New York were both sued by Airbnb after putting strict rules in place. Other cities have banned the practice, while New Orleans recently approved rules that allow apartment rentals but limit rentals of full houses.
HOUSING COMMITTEE STILL WORKING ON RULES
Airbnb officials communicated with Portland’s staff as the city’s housing committee was drawing up rules. It also organized a mass email to city officials from its hosts in advance of a public hearing in October.
“We continue to have productive discussions with elected officials and community leaders in Portland and appreciate the council’s work to craft regulations that protect public safety while fostering the economic opportunity of house sharing,” the company said in a written statement.
Portland’s zoning code does not expressly permit short-term rentals, and city authorities have determined short-term rentals are, technically, prohibited throughout the city.
In August, however, City Manager Jon Jennings said the city would not enforce zoning rules on short-term rentals except in cases of life-safety violations in order to give the City Council’s Housing Committee time to come up with regulations for short-term rentals.
In the five months since, the committee has tried to find a balance between permitting rentals and protecting neighborhoods and housing for full-time residents.
“It has absolutely taken longer than we expected. It has taken longer than we wanted, but we wanted to take the time and get it right,” said Jill Duson, an at-large city councilor and the Housing Committee chairwoman. She would like the committee to vote on a recommendation to the council during its meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.
REGULATING RENTALS AN ‘EMPTY GESTURE’
Portland’s staff initially proposed a rule that would allow only people who owned and lived in their homes to do short-term rentals. The rules debated by the Housing Committee would permit rentals in owner-occupied and non-owner-occupied buildings.
Committee members have reached consensus on some regulations, such as an annual registration, fees and safety requirements. They have yet to decide whether to allow non-owner-occupied single-family homes to be rented short term, whether to limit the number of such homes a person can rent, and whether to dissuade owners from converting homes into short-term rental properties by tacking on a high registration fee, perhaps $5,000, Duson said. The committee also is considering a cap of 300 to 500 short-term rentals citywide. If approved, the rules would be applied as an accessory use to residences.
Duson would prefer prohibiting short-term rentals in non-owner-occupied homes. “I have a little difficulty saying, ‘We think it is a problem but you can pay your way out of it,’ ” she said.
In the meantime, residents are putting pressure on the city to curb zoning violators in residential areas.
Ellen and Tom Sidar are part of a neighborhood group called Friends of Deering Highlands, which organized after dealing with an Airbnb house on Bradley Street that hosted large groups of guests who held loud late-night parties last summer.
The couple thought they had retired to a quiet street without businesses, and feel lied to and cheated by a city that will not enforce its own rules, Tom Sidar said.
“Our city isn’t even trying, they have just rolled over for the short-term rental community,” he said.
In a November letter to the city, John Bannon, a lawyer hired by the friends group, said regulating short-term rentals was an “empty gesture” that ignored that they are not allowed to begin with. Bannon also argued that the city’s moratorium on enforcement was illegal and that the Housing Committee lacks the authority to draft amendments to the city’s land use code.
POLICE: FEW COMPLAINTS ABOUT RENTALS
In a Jan. 4 letter, Portland Associate Corporation Counsel Victoria Morales said that although short-term rentals are prohibited, it is at the city’s discretion whether to enforce those regulations.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the department received three calls to the 233 Bradley St. house in September, but there were no issues causing officers to take action. He would not characterize the house as a problem location, despite issues reported by neighbors. And short-term rentals have not become a problem for the police force.
“We do not have an ongoing issue with short-term rentals around the city,” Sauschuck said. “In fact, it is something I seldom hear about from a complaint perspective.”
The city’s zoning office has received complaints about two short-term rentals, the house at 233 Bradley St. and another on Pineloch Drive in North Deering, said Zoning Administrator Ann Machado.
Neither owner could be reached to comment for this story.
Ken Thomas, who runs an Airbnb on Danforth Street and closely follows the regulation process, said he thinks the concern from residential neighborhoods is overblown.
“But regardless, there is nothing saying there couldn’t be a problem in the future with homes like this,” Thomas said. He would like the city to develop rules that would give neighbors notice and a chance to comment before someone advertises a short-term rental.
“Everyone who cares would want there to be a mechanism to address that,” Thomas said. “It does not mean every single-family home in the city should be prohibited from doing it.”
Despite the lack of complaints to police and the zoning office, some residents insist it is a quickly growing problem that Portland is failing to address. A search of Airbnb shows at least 30 Portland properties for rent that accommodate at least eight guests. Rentals are advertised for $230 to $500 a night.
“We are trying to wake the city up to the fact this is happening everywhere,” Sidar said.