Portland takes long look at regulating short-term housing rentals

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PORTLAND — After 50 speakers were heard at a recent meeting, the discussion continues next week about regulating short-term housing rentals in the city.

The City Council Housing Committee on Oct. 26 at 5 p.m. is expected to discuss a package of recommendations from city Housing Planner Tyler Norod to better control the burgeoning short-term rental market popularized by services like Airbnb.

The committee discussion follows a 2 1/2-hour council public hearing Oct. 13, where speakers largely defended short-term rentals, although one home on Bradley Street was singled out as an example of what can go wrong.

“This document from City Hall is shocking in its deliberate attempt to inflict widespread damage,” Commercial Street resident Ralph Baldwin said at the hearing.

A former teacher who relies on short-term rentals to bolster a state pension, Baldwin said the proposals would put him out of business.

In an Oct. 7 memo, Norod suggested 18 points councilors could enact, including banning companies or limited liability corporations from operating short-term rentals, requiring short-term rentals to be in buildings that are the primary residencies of hosts, and requiring all short-term rentals to be registered with the city Housing Safety Office.

Norod’s memo also outlined comparable regulatory efforts by cities around the world, and noted Airbnb listings increased to 439 in August, up from 206 a year before.

The regulatory framework also calls for city inspections of homes and buildings open for short-term rentals, and fines beginning at $500 for rentals that are advertised, but not registered. Further offenses could carry a $10,000 fine.

“While there is some debate about the specifics, in reality most, if not all, (short-term rentals) in Portland are operating outside of compliance with city and state regulations and requirements,” Norod said.

Andrew Kalloch, an attorney representing Airbnb, complimented Norod for presenting the “nuanced regulations before the council,” and agreed the short-term rental units could be removing some long-term rental units from the market.

The Portland residential vacancy rate is about 3 percent, and Norod’s research of the Airbnb listings show short-term rentals can average $235 per night.

Supporters and hosts of short-term rentals were numerous at the hearing, but complaints about short-term rentals at 233 Bradley St., near the intersection of Brighton and Stevens avenues, were also notable.

The home is owned by Shannon Welsh, a former Regional School Unit 5 superintendent who this week declined comment about the rentals and complaints. RSU 5 is comprised of Durham, Pownal and Freeport.

The Airbnb ad for Welsh’s home notes there are “limited options in Portland for individual rooms (and) larger groups or families to have a place to stay and gather,” but next-door neighbor Robyn Brown said the groups renting the home have made life difficult for him.

“This is having a serious negative impact on my life,” she said. “I have an illegal hotel operating next door to me.”

Brown said large groups of renters have been noisy, littered the area, and are hostile to requests to keep quiet at night. She said Welsh threatened her with legal action if she goes on Welsh’s property or confronts guests.

Tom Sidar, who lives across the street, confirmed Brown’s complaints and said Airbnb has not responded to his emails about the rentals.

“(It is) a company whose quality control is a joke,” he said. “(It is) a horrendous example of a zoning violation that is run by a host who has threatened those who have complained.”

Following the hearing, Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. said he emailed City Manager Jon Jennings and asked if Welsh may be in violation of the city ordinance governing disorderly houses.

In an Oct. 14 email, city attorney Rich Bianculli said the house is “on our radar as a potential Disorderly House,” following four police calls last month. Bianculli said one call was unfounded, and, in another, people were gone when police arrived.

“We will be giving the property special attention as well as reaching out to the property owner so that the noise complaints can be addressed,” Bianculli said.

While Bradley Street neighbors complained about Welsh’s home, Airbnb hosts from throughout the city said they rent rooms and homes with clear rules about behavior and, at the same time, earn much-needed income.

Some, like Lynn Plymale and Diane Mesich, said short-term rentals bring visitors to the city who spend money, even though they can’t afford hotel rooms.

Mesich said the income from short-term rentals offsets mortgage and property tax increases and the costs of caring for a child with developmental disabilities.

“It has given me motivation to keep a clean house and organized home,” she said. “Our guests are nothing short of impeccable.”

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

Neighbors have complained that short-term renters at this 233 Bradley St. home in Portland are causing disturbances.

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.