Airbnb is lobbying the Portland City Council to abandon mandatory city inspections of short-term rental properties and allow the company to simply register its own local hosts and then forward that information to the city.
Airbnb is essentially asking the city to deregulate its system for assuring short-term rentals are safe for renters, and instead rely on renters to raise concerns when they post reviews on Airbnb's website.
Company officials have been meeting individually with city commissioners and Mayor Ted Wheeler's staff to lobby for the plan, modeled after an ordinance Airbnb recently secured in New Orleans.
"We would be asking folks to attest to that their homes are safe and they meet local safety regulations," said Laura Rillos, Airbnb press secretary for Portland. "In New Orleans, the city can inspect whenever; it's just not part of getting a permit."
So far, Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish have come out against the idea.
Airbnb is the dominant short-term rental company in Portland, with about 4,500 homes, condos and apartments now listed with the service. The company says that also includes some hotels that advertise on its site.
Portland's short-term rental ordinance requires Airbnb and other companies to refrain from listing hosts' properties for rent on websites until the hosts get a city permit. Permits are issued after cursory home inspections, during which city staff check for basic safety features such as proper exits, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors.
Airbnb and some other short-term rental companies have long flouted the city ordinance, and only a relatively small share of their hosts bother to get inspected and licensed by the city.
When Portland became one of the first major U.S. cities to enact a short-term rental ordinance in 2014, neither the city nor Airbnb fully understood all the ramifications, said Laura Spanjian, Airbnb's public policy manager for the Northwest and other regions, who swung through Portland last Thursday and Friday to meet with reporters and city commissioners.
"We want to revisit that," Spanjian said. "What we would like to work with the city of Portland on is to get rid of mandatory inspections," she said. "It's very hard for a city do do mandatory inspections. No city has been successful at it."
City officials say mandatory inspections would work if Airbnb refused to advertise properties until the hosts get licensed and inspected, as the ordinance requires.
As an alternative, Airbnb is proposing the city adopt a "pass-through registration" system similar to New Orleans' new system, Spanjian said.
Under that system, people hoping to rent out rooms or entire properties for less than 30 days register on Airbnb's website, then click that it's OK for Airbnb to pass the information on to the city. "They're registered as soon as they hit send," she said.
Rather than have city inspections, Spanjian said, problems with properties and "bad actors" would emerge through Airbnb's review system, whereby renters rate hosts and provide feedback. That would reveal problems with the properties, and Airbnb could respond, Spanjian said. Or, she added, would-be renters could be forewarned by reading past renters' reviews before making reservations.
City Commissioner Nick Fish said he is not inclined to support Airbnb's proposal.
"First of all, it feels like we're rewarding bad behavior," Fish said. "Their compliance rate is abysmal."
The city's requirements for safe egress and exits, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide monitors are reasonable, he said. "I think the city has an obligation to make sure citizens are safe," he said. "I don't have a lot of confidence in self-certification systems."
Eudaly, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, which handles registrations and inspections of short-term rentals, issued a statement through her chief of staff Marshall Runkel.
"I think it's great that Airbnb is figuring out ways to ensure that their hosts are more compliant with local rules and regulations," Eudaly stated. "I am less enthusiastic about their suggestion that we should operate on the honor system when it comes to basic life safety standards. Call it what you will, the fact is these hosts are turning their homes into commercial enterprises and the city has an obligation to ensure they are safe."
Airbnb also is under fire here and elsewhere for reducing the supply of affordable housing, because hosts have found they earn more money via short-term rentals than by renting out spare rooms or entire houses to long-term renters.
Airbnb says it tried to address that by limiting hosts from renting out more than one property, under its "One Host, One Home" initiative. Since the policy was introduced at the beginning of the year, Airbnb has taken almost 525 Portland listings off its website, Spanjian said.
When the city held hearings to craft its short-term rental ordinance, there was relatively little concern expressed about the impact on the affordable housing supply. That is changing.
Airbnb, Eudaly said, remains "in denial as to the collective impact of short-term rentals on the global housing crisis."
"I'm proud of the strong stance Portland took in 2014," she said, "and hope that we continue to hold our ground."