Editorials

Short-term rentals in Olympia: How do you want the city to regulate AirBnBs?

Short-term rentals spark debate in other cities

Many cities are grappling with how to deal with short-term rentals. In Raleigh, North Carolina, city leaders stopped enforcing a ban on short-term rentals in 2015 until they passed regulations.
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Many cities are grappling with how to deal with short-term rentals. In Raleigh, North Carolina, city leaders stopped enforcing a ban on short-term rentals in 2015 until they passed regulations.

When Olympia City Council member Clark Gillman was laid off from a job and struggling to make ends meet, he rented out rooms in his house to short-term guests. “That’s how we managed to keep our house,” he said at a recent meeting of the council’s Land Use and Environment Committee.

He is surely not alone in doing so. At a recent meeting of the committee, city planner Leonard Bauer reported that the city has 167 short-term rental listings advertised on online platforms such as Airbnb, Home Away, and Flipkey.

However, some of these listings are not coming from homeowners or tenants renting out a spare room to supplement their incomes; they are from people or companies that buy houses as vacation rentals, in which the entire house is rented on a short-term basis.

Judy Bardin, who lives in west Olympia, told the committee about an example of that phenomenon. Someone bought a modest, two-bedroom house next to hers, and added more bedrooms and a backyard spa. Now it’s a short-term rental for as many as 10 people at a time. When they party in the spa at night – which is within a few feet of her bedroom window – the noise is a problem. Neighbors also complain about parking and excess garbage – and the fact that a modestly priced home is no longer available to house local residents.

Short-term rentals, or STRs, typically advertised on online platforms, have mushroomed in cities across the United States. In cities that are particularly attractive to tourists, they have caused a multitude of problems and prompted a growing wave of regulations.

San Francisco linked growth in STRs to a rise in tenant evictions, according to legal website nolo.com, and in 2015 banned them in apartment buildings and restricted them to homeowners’ primary residences.

In tourist mecca New Orleans, The Guardian reported that an affordable, mostly black neighborhood became a magnet for investor-owned STRs, also leading to less housing for locals and consequent tough regulation.

Cities in Washington are not the tourist magnets that San Francisco or New Orleans are. But earlier this year, concern about the continued growth of STRs led to passage of HB 1798 by the Washington state Legislature.

The law requires companies such as Airbnb and STR property owners to register with the state Department of Revenue, pay taxes (including the tax hotel and motel operators pay), meet health, safety and insurance requirements, and have a local contact person if the host is away. Platforms such as Airbnb must inform property owners that advertise on their sites of these requirements.

The question before the Olympia City Council’s Land Use and Environment Committee was whether – and how much – the city should build on that regulatory foundation. (Enforcing the new state regulations falls on local governments, which naturally caused some grousing about another unfunded mandate.)

Enforcement of STR regulations is such a challenge for cities that private firms already have sprung up to do it. One, called Host Compliance, contacted the city to offer its services. As a demonstration of its proprietary tracking software, it provided the city with data about the number, price and location of STRs. In fact, that’s how the city knows that there are 167 listings.

Committee members were uncertain about whether STRs are or will become a big deal in Olympia – and whether they warrant a little or a lot of the city staff and council’s time and attention.

The three committee members seemed inclined to recommend banning vacation rentals in non-owner-occupied houses, and to go lightly on the Gilman-esque resident who just needs to rent out a spare bedroom to make some extra income. But beyond that, they were divided between Gilman, who wants to keep it simple and just pass an ordinance, and Nathaniel Jones leans toward a more thorough process, perhaps involving a citizen survey. Lisa Parshley wasn’t sure, but noted that the council has a lot of other big complex issues on its plate already.

Maybe citizens could help speed up their decision-making process by weighing in now rather than waiting for surveys and workshops.

Do you agree that the city should ban vacation rentals in non-owner occupied houses? Should they ban STRs in apartment buildings to preserve long-term rental availability? Can anyone think of an incentive for people with extra bedrooms to rent them long-term to local folks instead of using them for STRs? Could a city tax on STRs generate a little revenue that could feed into the Home Fund for low-income housing?

Surely there are other policy ideas percolating in readers’ brains. So here’s an email address that goes to all city council members: citycouncil@ci.olympia.wa.us. Have your say.

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