Airbnb deal aims to fix problem with short-term rentals
City leaders seem to have consensus that regulating squirrelly short-term rental companies will become a lot easier once a pending agreement with Airbnb is negotiated.
The company has agreed to provide names and addresses of its local hosts, in exchange for being allowed to register its own hosts and dispense with mandatory city safety inspections by the Bureau of Development Services. It's similar to a deal the city reached nearly a year ago with HomeAway to settle a lawsuit.
Mayor Ted Wheeler acknowledged in an October interview that short-term rental companies have been operating like "the Wild Wild West" in Portland, but said that's about to change. When Airbnb and other companies release the data on host names and addresses, "that will definitely eliminate illegal usage," Wheeler said.
Thomas Lannom, the city Revenue Division director who has been negotiating with Airbnb for the good part of a year, said via email Nov. 30 that he's "down to fine details" on that deal.
Under the agreement, Airbnb hosts would stipulate on online forms that they meet city requirements, including safe escape exits from rooms, interconnected smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms. Hosts must also live on the premises at least three-fourths of the year, and rent no more than two rooms at a time.
Airbnb calls the move toward deregulation "pass-through registration," because the registration of hosts passes through them, not the city. More than 4,000 residential properties have been rented out by the night since the City Council adopted a short-term rental ordinance in 2014.
But it's unclear if stakeholders and other citizens will have a chance to weigh in on the new system, because it may be adopted administratively rather than go to the City Council for approval.
And the deal is placing a lot of faith in Airbnb to act with integrity, which, judging how they have handled the case of a fake mega-host dubbed "Nadia," is not a sure thing.
Lannom said city attorneys have determined the new scheme does not require City Council approval. "This agreement is not required to go to City Council," he stated.
At least one city commissioner, Chloe Eudaly, wants to debate the changes and explore additional language, such as restricting central-city apartment owners from turning their vacant units into short-term rentals, which has limited the supply of rental housing during the city's declared "Housing Emergency."
"Even if they're not required to bring it to City Council, they should," said Marshall Runkel, Eudaly's chief of staff. "I hope we can persuade them otherwise."
Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
City attorneys say the deregulation deal does not constitute a change in the city's short-term rental ordinance or city code. The new pass-through registration process "is in furtherance of the code provisions. As such, it is an administrative act and fits within the code language," Ken McGair, senior deputy city attorney, said in an email.
Section 33.207 of the city Zoning Code, where the short-term rental provisions seem to have landed, states that "The Bureau of Development Services must verify that each bedroom to be rented to overnight guests" meets the smoke alarm and carbon monoxide requirements, plus "the building code requirements for a sleeping room at the time it was created or converted."
"BDS will still verify the requirements are met," McGair said, "through either a random inspection of the property, or by accepting a signed attestation from the host, or both."
'Nadia' still renting units
The Portland Tribune exposed Airbnb's fraudulent listings for "Nadia" in an Oct. 2 story. Nadia claimed on Airbnb's website to live in Portland, Seattle and San Diego, and listed several hundred short-term rentals in those cities plus Los Angeles and Boston. The photo used for Nadia turned out to be an apparent model, as the same image was used on unrelated websites about "Becoming a Pretty Girl in High School," and "100 Pretty Back to School Outfits Ideas," among others.
Nadia's listings of properties available on the website also were fraudulent, as the same photos were used to depict rentals in Portland and other cities.
Six days after the Tribune exposed the fraud, Airbnb hadn't responded to questions about it, and Nadia was still listed as the host for 120 properties in Portland. When told the Tribune was doing a follow-up story, Airbnb finally responded, and said Oct. 9 that it "suspended" the Portland listings "while they are reviewed."
So far, Airbnb has not responded to questions about the results of that review, which was announced nearly two months ago.
A recent check of Airbnb found that the Portland listings for Nadia seem to be off the website. However, Airbnb is still using the fake model photo of Nadia on her Airbnb profile, and insists that her ID was "verified" by the company.
Nadia is still listing at least 100 short-term rentals in four other cities, though it appears to have taken steps to make it harder to search for her entire portfolio.
A recent customer review of Nadia's property by a guest named Moky is illustrative of Airbnb's lax approach, and the limits of its ability to do self-policing of poor hosts through guest reviews.
Moky cautioned other would-be renters that the unit was managed not by Nadia but by a corporate entity named Barsala that owns multiple apartments in downtown Seattle. Moky wrote that the unit they gave here was not the one she thought she rented online, and the images posted online were stock photos and not of the unit. When she complained, she had to move to a different unit, at her cost.
"Not sure Nadia even exists as I never heard from her. It's exactly what Airbnb is NOT about. It is disingenuous," Moky wrote.
Nadia's comments about her guest Moky were telling: "Moky was a wonderful guest. There were no issues whatsoever. We have no hesitation recommending Moky to any host."
Mayor Wheeler noted in October that with him taking authority for the Bureau of Development Services, "there's a new sheriff in town" to crack down on short-term rental companies.
We shall see if that turns out to be the case.