South Portland debate over short-term rentals brings out fans, foes

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Owners of short-term rental housing Monday told the City Council they invested in their properties in good faith and should not be burdened with new regulations and restrictions.

The council workshop on the proliferation and potential problems caused by short-term, vacation rentals like Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO drew a crowd of almost 50 people. It included comments from landlords, and from residents who said they want short-term rentals banned from their neighborhoods. 

Also on Monday, City Councilor Linda Cohen was also chosen by a unanimous council vote to be the city’s next mayor. Cohen and other newly elected officials will be sworn in Dec. 4 at City Hall.

According to information provided by Airbnb to the city, in the last year there were approximately 160 active South Portland hosts who rented to 10,500 guests. It said 67 percent of the hosts are women, with the average age of 45. Almost 20 percent are 60 or older.

“The typical host earned about $8,000 in the last year by renting their home for three nights a month, with 98 percent of hosts renting for less than half the year,” Airbnb said. “Indeed, for the vast majority of hosts, home sharing represents a part-time, supplemental source of income, not a full-time, commercial operation.”

The council first discussed regulating  at an Oct. 11 workshop. They advised staff they are less concerned about owner-occupied buildings, but they should still be registered with the city.  

During a 90-minute comment period Monday, 32 people spoke, including about 20 operators of short-term rentals, many of whom were not owner-occupied units. 

Some residents sought a ban on short-stay rentals in residential neighborhoods, while others who have used short-term rentals said they like the option for South Portland because it’s good for tourism.

Many asked the council to take time to make a thoughtful decision.

Cindy Krum, of Myrtle Avenue, said she’s “fixing up” her home to accommodate paying visitors. Krum said she lives near short-term rentals and has never been aware of excessive disruptions from people partying. She said the city thinks the city is trying to regulate too much.

Dan Romano, however, said short-term housing isn’t good for neighborhoods.

“Let’s get this done right. Ban these (short-term rentals) from residential neighborhoods,” Romano said. “… Those people are on vacation … we are not.”

Councilor-elect Kate Lewis said she supports owners who live in their buildings, and is skeptical about non-owner occupied homes that are rented for short stays.

She said the “phenomena is taking whole houses off the market for families that could be contributing to neighborhoods. We’re building more housing and they are being taken by short-term housing.”

Ted Sillars said he owns a short-term rental and there is no way he could afford to live in South Portland without it.

“Don’t take this large hammer and smash this small property owner,” Sillars said. “It feels like you are criminalizing us for what we are doing.”

Marilyn Scheindel, of Cape Elizabeth, who owns three short-term rentals in the Willard Beach area with her husband, said “the speed this is moving at is appalling.”

“What are my rights as a homeowner,” Scheindel asked.

Peter Stanton countered that neighbors also invested in their homes.

“I invested in my house; we are all investing in our property … you can’t tell me your investment is more important than my investment,” Stanton said.

Charles Higgins, of Ledge Road, said he has stayed in about 30 Airbnbs. Although he never intends to get into the business himself, he wants to allow other people to do so.

Ed Powers of Brookside Avenue said an Airbnb across from his home is run by a very responsible woman, but one of her drunken guests repeatedly tried – and finally succeeded – in entering his home, terrifying his family. Powers pointed out that it doesn’t matter how responsible the owner is; it just takes one irresponsible guest to cause problems.

Councilor Eben Rose argued that the city already had a way to keep short-term units out of some of the residential zones: those types of rentals meet the definition of an inn, Rose said, and the issue is enforcement.

The city’s attorney, Sally Daggett, said it would be easier and less costly to regulate licensing than zoning, because fines can be levied on violators and the city wouldn’t have to dispute potential zoning lawsuits.

Smith said the city shouldn’t interfere with what people are doing it their own homes and doesn’t want to stop people from earning the income.

“I think for those who don’t live in their home, there needs to be some rigor and registration,” she said.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.