Portland panel prepares regulations for short-term rentals

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PORTLAND — City councilors could soon have regulations to consider on short-term housing rentals.

Jill Duson, chairwoman of the council’s Housing Committee, said Jan. 12 she expects the committee to move on proposed regulations for buildings in mainland neighborhoods at its Jan. 25 meeting.

The committee spent more than four hours Jan. 11 hashing out details on what should be done about the fast-growing sector of the city’s housing market. No ordinance language has been drafted, but Duson said it will be online before the next committee meeting, and open to public comment.

“I hope the folks who come will focus their feelings on the items we are going to take action on,” she said.

Duson and city officials also expect the Planning Board to weigh in on regulations, since new definitions will be needed in the city’s zoning codes. The board acts in an advisory capacity; any new regulations will require City Council approval after a public hearing.

Councilors agreed short-term rental units are defined as being available to guests for less than 30 days. The units will have to be registered at the Housing Safety Office and owners must allow inspections. Registration fees will begin at $100, and vary according to whether the rentals are in buildings that are occupied by owners. Registration fees for units in buildings that are not owner-occupied would be twice as high.

The committee agreed the maximum registration fee in buildings not occupied by the owners will be $4,000 per unit when five or more are rented for short terms.

The committee has also agreed to ban short-term rentals in single-family homes that are not owner occupied. The registration fee for a single-family home allowed to be used as a short-term rental would be $100.

“We want to permit it, but we don’t want it to proliferate in residential neighborhoods,” Duson said.

The ordinance is also expected to cap at 300 the total number of short-term rental units in buildings that are not owner occupied. The cap is about 100 more than are already rented through Airbnb, Duson said, including about 30 island rentals.

Duson said registration fees should first cover the cost of administration and inspections, with a portion possibly going to the city Housing Trust Fund.

“We want to be clear it is not the intent of council to raise the money and then move them over to general fund activities,” she said.

Duson is joined on the committee by Councilors David Brenerman and Brian Batson, but much of the framework on fees and caps was proposed by Councilors Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau, who are former committee members. 

The Housing Committee was established with five members in December 2015 by Mayor Ethan Strimling. Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. also served on the committee in its first year. Last month, Strimling reduced the committee’s size and added Councilor Brian Batson to its roster.

According to city Housing Planner Tyler Norod, short-term rentals through companies such as Airbnb began emerging in 2014 and 2015 and have been growing steadily since. Airbnb.com now lists 310 active hosts renting 406 homes, rooms or shared rooms throughout the city.

Victoria Morales of the city Corporation Counsel Office noted in a Jan. 4 memo that city officials have determined at least three times that short-term rentals are not permitted in the residential R-4 and R-6 zones, but the city has not been enforcing the zoning.

The Jan. 11 committee meeting opened with a one-hour public hearing that showed there is still a divide among residents on the need, effects and desirability of allowing short-term housing rentals.

Some short-term rental hosts have joined together as Share Portland and asked the committee to get a more detailed picture of the market and its effects on city housing stock before moving forward with any regulations.

Danielle Mesich said she rents her single-family home to other families who are not disruptive to neighborhood life.

“My guests are families with small children and they are looking for a safe place, too,” she said.

By contrast, Ellen Sidar said short-term rentals in Bradley Street homes have damaged the quality of life in the Deering neighborhood.

“It is just party central on our street,” she said as she asked for caps on the number of days a home can be rented and the number of renters.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.