Proposed rules in Portland could halt the rapid growth of short-term apartment and house rentals offered through popular websites such as Airbnb.

Draft amendments to the city’s existing short-term rental ordinance would reinforce a citywide 300-unit cap on rentals that are not a primary residence, limit the number of units in individual city neighborhoods, allow owners to register only one unit a year, and require owners to provide additional documentation for registration, among other restrictions.

District 5 Councilor Kim Cook, who authored the proposal, said it was an attempt to protect the city’s existing housing stock that some fear is being eaten away by conversions of long-term residences to houses and apartments rented for a week or a couple days at a time.

“It allows us to hit kind of a pause button,” Cook said in an interview Wednesday. “It seems important that we preserve for housing the units we already have in the city.”

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the proposals during a hearing at the City Council’s housing committee meeting Oct. 11.

There are 781 short-term rentals – units that can be rented for less than 30 days at a time – registered in Portland as of this month, about 4 percent of the city’s rental housing stock. Of the short-term rentals, about 60 percent were registered by owners who used them as a primary residence. About 21 percent were registered by people who owned the units but didn’t live in them, called non-owner-occupied by the city. The remaining units were registered by tenants or people on Casco Bay islands, which do not have to follow all the same rules as the mainland.

The 162 non-owner-occupied units falls under the 300-unit cap, but Cook and others think that number is misleading. The way the ordinance has been implemented allows people who live in a multi-unit building they own to rent other units in the building without counting them against the cap, said Mayor Ethan Strimling, who helped Cook draft the amendments.

He thinks the proposed changes would close that gap.

“This deals with the fundamental problem that many of us are wrestling with, which is the loss of rental units on the market,” Strimling said.

He said he’s heard many stories of people who have had to leave their long-term housing because their landlord wanted to convert a unit to a more lucrative short-term rental.

“I think the way we structured this amendment will allow us to get our arms around this a lot better,” he said. “It is really going to reduce the expansion and will also get more people underneath the cap.”

An assumption underlying the changes is that non-owner-occupied units are being rented only as short-term rentals. That’s compared to people who rent their primary homes a few months a year or offer a single room to guests.

Short-term rental operators and others say that practice isn’t hurting housing availability as much as Strimling and others suggest.

Landlords operating more than one unit would be grandfathered in if the ordinance changes, but people will be limited to registering one short-term rental unit a year starting Dec. 1, according to Cook’s amendment.

If it passes, Cook believes most of the new units would be primary residences, since it is likely the true number of non-owner-occupied units in the city has already hit or exceeded the 300-unit cap.

Cook’s amendment would also limit the number of non-owner-occupied units to three per city block.

At the housing committee meeting Wednesday, Cook admitted a city block may not be an appropriate measure, but wanted some way to deal with growth of short-term rentals in some parts of the city.

“The idea is that in certain parts of town, Munjoy Hill in particular, we have a proliferation that starts to change the character of a neighborhood,” Cook said.

The amended ordinance would also require people registering units to provide two additional pieces of identification as proof of residency, on top of an affidavit that is already required under the existing ordinance.

Further requirements include reporting which services the owner plans to advertise and book the unit in, such as Airbnb, VRBO or Home Away. At the time of renewal, applicants would have to provide the number of nights the unit was rented and proof that Maine state lodging taxes were paid.

The short-term rental issue has been a hot-button issue in Portland for at least two years. In August, Airbnb reported that the number of guests staying in Maine properties over the summer grew to 229,000 this summer, up 45 percent from the same period in 2017. The most popular Maine city for guests was Portland, according to Airbnb.

Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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