Our Opinion: Put teeth in short-term rental regulations
Many Portlanders like to think of their city as a progressive urban center, willing to hold corporations accountable. But when it comes to regulating short-term rental companies, the city seems more concerned with extracting money from Airbnb, HomeAway and other operators, than ensuring the units that get rented meet city codes.
As reported online last week and in today's print edition, a new city audit revealed lax enforcement of the short-term rental industry, a disregard of neighborhood concerns, and a lack of understanding of how the "sharing economy" is affecting the inventory of affordable rental units.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, a longtime advocate for affordable rental housing, say the issues raised in the audit will be addressed when the city finally gets the names and addresses of all the hosts.
And getting that data was a coup — something that other cities also have been trying to obtain.
But as the price of obtaining that information, the city is largely abandoning any true regulation of the industry, by negotiating to let the notoriously law-breaking companies register their own hosts who will "attest" they are meeting a small series of safety measures.
The hotel industry, which employs an estimated 8,600 people in the Portland Metro area, is right to call this a double standard.
As the auditors noted, even if property owners follow those minor safety measures (and there's no way to tell if they do), those precautions are not enough to assure that guests are safe, opening the city up to a big liability.
Defenders of the deal say if there are code violations or other safety issues in the short-term rental properties, someone will complain, which will trigger an inspection. Or the city might do random spot inspections of some properties.
Nearly 300 such complaints were filed in 2017 in Portland. That suggests there's a big problem here, particularly given the auditors' conclusion that most violations won't draw a complaint.
There are better models — including some here in Oregon.
The state has an aggressive approach to allowing and regulating day-care centers and adult foster care services that take place in private residences and enforcing codes to ensure the safety of the children and adults inside those home-based businesses.
Why should tourists not be equally protected when they occupy homes for commercial purposes?
A survey released earlier this year by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is troubling. Researchers looked at more than 120,000 Airbnb rentals in 16 cities and found that one in five lacked smoke alarms and less than half had fire extinguishers or first-aid kits.
A second concern highlighted in the audit is the lack of data on the impact of short-term rentals on the supply of long-term affordable housing.
Hosts argue they wouldn't rent most of these rooms on the open market, because they'd keep them free as guest rooms.
That's probably only partly true. When housing is tight, more and more people are seeking to find long-term rental space in homes. But data shows homeowners can make more money on short-term rentals through Airbnb, HomeAway and the other 13 companies operating in the city.
As baby boomers become empty nesters, their four-bedroom homes could be part of the solution to the lack of affordable housing units. But not if they end up on Airbnb.
Even if the result is taking 1,000 rooms off the affordable housing market, the cost of providing that many new affordable housing units is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, based on research by the city and Metro for their housing bond programs.
Similarly, city rules state that a host must live on site at least nine months out of the year, to assure he or she is keeping an eye on potentially rowdy guests. But how can that get enforced when the city wants to rely on the industry regulating itself?
Rebecca Esau, director of the city's Bureau of Development Services, says her office is willing to properly enforce city code — but only if it has the staff to do so.
The city already is making lots of money from the lodging tax. Airbnb alone estimates it has sent in $14 million since 2014. We encourage Wheeler to earmark some of that money to beef up regulation of these units.
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