South Portland debate over short-term rentals draws attention from Airbnb

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Lobbying by Airbnb is worrying some residents about the $3.8 billion corporation’s influence in the local debate over short-term housing rentals. 

Peter Stanton, a Loveitt’s Field resident, said while Airbnb may know about technology, it doesn’t know much about Mainers and their will to preserve their communities.

“We value our communities, we understand our property rights, and we will not allow either to be exploited for their corporate greed,” he said. 

Stanton was one of the city residents who received an email from Airbnb Jan. 22, while the City Council was preparing to continue its discussion on short-term rentals, their impact on neighborhoods, and a possible ordinance that may ban certain types of rentals in residential areas.

Airbnb began the message to residents by saying “It is an important moment for home sharing in South Portland.”

It updated residents on the council’s schedule for discussion and urged people to contact the councilors to share anecdotal evidence of how home sharing restrictions would hurt them. 

The council is leaning toward a ban on all non-homeowner occupied rentals in residential areas, while allowing hosted stays in all sections of the city. Discussion will continue over restrictions on the number of people allowed per room, and how apartment complexes fit into the mix. 

“Sharing your Airbnb story is the most powerful way to show how home sharing is transforming lives in South Portland and furthering the great tradition of tourism in Vacationland,” Airbnb said. “Email the mayor and City Council today and tell them about your home sharing experience and to urge them to recognize Airbnb and other short‐term rental platforms as economic engines in the community.”

District 2 Councilor Kate Lewis called the corporation’s action “insidious” and said she received identically worded messages from about a dozen constituents before realizing it was the result of the form sent by Airbnb.

“It’s clear they have a great interest in South Portland, and we might have a situation where it’s bordering on a hotel franchise without doing the the work of a hotel in the city,” Lewis said. 

Lewis said other cities in the country, including New Orleans and Nashville, have also contended with Airbnb when trying to enact regulations. According to The Tennessean newspaper, Airbnb and other companies worked with the Tennessee General Assembly to restrict cities from banning short-term rentals. The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill targeting only Nashville, and the Senate deferred the bill but could take it up in 2018, according to the paper. 

Stanton is opposed to non-homeowner occupied rentals in residential areas, and said the Airbnb email included a pre-written form letter to send to councilors. Stanton said he fears the San Francisco-based corporation will seek to override local policy, adding he plans on reaching out to state representatives to protect local decisions. 

“It’s a naked power grab,” he said, adding that while Airbnb touts itself as promoting a shared economy, it has reached a point where it’s not “cute” anymore. 

Andrew L. Kalloch, an attorney who works in the public policy division for Airbnb, said South Portland is an important market for the company, although he declined to say how much the company earns from rentals in the city. 

Kalloch said the company will continue to protect and preserve the rights of its hosts regardless of the council’s decision, and said the email sent to residents is a typical practice in communities where regulating short-term rentals is being considered. 

In the first 10 months of last year, South Portland had 160 hosts who housed about 10,000 guests. According to Airbnb’s data, the typical host made $8,000 from renting their home for an average of 36 nights a year, or three days a month.

Kalloch said the perspective in this debate seems to be that the average short-term rental in the city is an entire home owned by an investor, and rented on a constant cycle. But the data doesn’t support that narrative, he said. 

Airbnb has listings in 65,000 cities globally, and a letter to the city from Airbnb said 3,800 South Portland residents have used Airbnb when traveling. 

When South Portland started to investigate policy around short-term rentals in October, Kalloch said he reached out to councilors with data and information on rentals in the city, as well as possible solutions suggested by the company. 

Kalloch said he could not comment on the direction councilors gave Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny for crafting an ordinance at a Jan. 24 workshop, because he was not familiar with the policies that were discussed.

When asked whether the company can understand the position of those concerned about certain types of rentals city, he said there is concern for the quality of life of residents. But he also contended existing codes can be used to enforce noise and parking regulations. Kalloch added there is also a mechanism, introduced last year on Airbnb’s website, to report problem rentals. 

He said the solution is not to take way income opportunities for everybody because some short-term rentals in the city may have caused problems. 

“Airbnb did not create this problem,” he said, “and short-term rentals are not new in South Portland.”

Kalloch said the company pays its fair share of taxes to the state, estimated at $2.9 million last year, based on the state’s 9 percent lodging tax. The Maine Department of Revenue declined to confirm that figure, because it is confidential information.

The City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance in February that could take effect June 1. 

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext.,106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. 

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