Restive short-term-rental hosts unite, form trade group
Debi Hertert and hundreds of other Portland short-term rental hosts have banded together to form their own trade group, seeking an independent voice as Portland officials weigh two new taxes and listing companies plot other changes.
Host2Host, which formed in February, aims to help short-term rental hosts learn from each other and give them clout dealing with the city as well as Airbnb, HomeAway and other companies that list their properties, said Hertert, the group's chairwoman.
Short-term rentals in private homes and condos have become a big business in Portland, with an estimated 4,500 properties available for travelers to rent by the night within city limits.
"We want a seat at the table," said Hertert, who describes the group as speaking for the "little people" in the short-term rental industry. "We'd like the city to separate us from the platforms."
Local hosts grew more restive after the Portland Tribune reported Feb. 27 that the city is negotiating with Airbnb to abandon mandatory inspections of prospective short-term rental sites and hopes to impose two new taxes.
Airbnb and some other short-term rental companies already collect a 13.5 percent lodging tax from travelers. `
City leaders are now discussing a new tax of $4 per night for each short-term rental stay to help pay for affordable housing, said Thomas Lannom, director of the city Revenue Division. The funds would go into the city's Housing Investment Fund, where the city already deposits its share of the lodging tax collected from short-term rental companies.
The city also is considering an additional 2 percent tax on short-term rentals, with proceeds going to Travel Portland to promote tourism campaigns. That's equal to what's paid by Portland hotels with more than 50 rooms, as part of the citywide Tourism Improvement District.
Those new taxes, and a separate proposal to ease city permitting and inspection requirements for short-term rental hosts, are expected to come before the City Council for approval in June, Lannom said.
Opposition to taxes
Some short-term rental hosts say they are being singled out unfairly.
Hertert said people who operate multiple short-term rentals in the city, which she calls commercial operations, may indeed deplete the stock of affordable housing. But the smaller operators who just rent out rooms in their own homes don't, she argues, because they tend to keep the rooms open for visiting family and friends and wouldn't rent them out year-round.
If the city's efforts to loosen regulations are successful, she said, the city will finally get names and addresses of all short-term rental hosts, enabling it to weed out commercial operators who violate the city ordinance by renting out multiple properties where they don't reside.
Host2Host members are pleased that their share of lodging taxes helps build more affordable housing, Hertert said, but don't think they should be taxed twice. A flat nightly fee of $4 per rental also could be regressive, she said, hurting smaller operators more, such as those charging a relatively low $40 a night.
Short-term rental hosts also resent paying more to promote tourism, she said, when Travel Portland doesn't do any campaigns to help their industry. Though the hotel industry has been arguing that there needs to be an "equal playing field" with the booming short-term rental industry, Hertert said the proposal would leave small-time hosts paying the same as hotels with more than 50 rooms, while smaller hotels pay nothing.
Deregulation in works
In settling a lawsuit with HomeAway in February, the city agreed to abandon mandatory inspections of short-term rentals, which are required for hosts to get permits. The vast majority of Airbnb and other hosts ignore that requirement, and the city found it hard to enforce the ordinance because listing companies refuse to release names and addresses of hosts.
Instead, the city will allow HomeAway to register its own hosts online, bypassing the city. Hosts would have to ensure they're meeting the city's basic safety requirements, such as providing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and proper emergency exits. In exchange, HomeAway will provide names and addresses of hosts.
Lannom has been trying to negotiate a similar deal with Airbnb for months, and said those talks are "ongoing."
The city won't change its inspection and permit system until it secures deals with Airbnb and HomeAway, which together have almost 90 percent of the Portland market, Lannom said. Once a deal is struck with Airbnb, the city will negotiate with the smaller players.
Potential conflict brewing
Deregulation and new taxes aren't Host2Host's only pressing issues.
Airbnb now charges travelers 6 to 12 percent of the room rates as its administrative fee, Hertert said, but there's talk of shifting that obligation to hosts. HomeAway, which charges travelers 9 to 15 percent, she said, also is talking about shifting that fee to hosts.
Such cost-shifting "would be devastating" to hosts, she said. "There's a lot of unrest and concern about how people are going to be able to continue."
The added financial burden for hosts could prompt some to manage their own bookings and advertising with clients. "There's some talk of moving back to that type of process," Hertert said.
Most of the 311 dues-paying members of Host2Host are Airbnb hosts, she said, though the trend is for folks to sign up with additional booking services, much as Uber drivers also sign up to drive for Lyft.
For now, Host2Host has a good relationship with Airbnb, Hertert said.
Airbnb declined an interview about the formation of the new independent trade group, which Hertert said is the first of its kind in the industry. Instead, Airbnb's Portland press secretary Laura Rillos provided a one-sentence statement via email: "Airbnb works with hosts around the world to advocate for fair home sharing laws and it's great to see hosts organize formal groups to connect with one another and support common sense regulations, whether that's through a trade organization like Host2Host or one of the more than 200 independent Home Sharing Clubs Airbnb has facilitated through our global platform."
Lannom said the city would welcome input from Host2Host, and would gladly send the group draft copies of the ordinances under discussion if requested.
At a May 15 "meet-up" of Host2Host at the nonprofit Oregon Public House in Northeast Portland, some 45 hosts showed up at a session jointly sponsored with Airbnb.
Among other topics discussed, Hertert told hosts she was able to convince an insurance company to offer coverage for bed bugs, which can present a huge liability for hosts.
"There is so much to learn about hospitality and sharing your home," host Tanya Bushnell said at the meet-up.
Host2Host appears to be growing fast, with members now in Southern Oregon and other states. "Our goal was to have 100 in six months, and we made that in a week," Hertert said. Membership costs $50 for hosts and $75 for businesses.
The volunteer-run group must now learn how to speak for a growing number of members who do not all agree.
Bushnell, for one, isn't so sure she wants the city to give up on mandatory home inspections and city permitting. The city inspections — which most short-term rental hosts have resisted — are rather simple, she said.
"I do feel strongly that hosts should be permitted; it's not that difficult a process," Bushnell said. "If I can do it, any one can do it."
That debate over whether the city should abandon mandatory inspections — and let the likes of Airbnb register its own hosts — is expected to come soon to the City Council.