South Portland may regulate short-term rentals like Airbnb

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city could be on its way to regulating the use of short-term housing rental brokers such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO.

One city councilor Wednesday said the problem has the potential to be “mini unregulated capitalism at its worst.”

Councilors are making the matter a top priority and plan to hold another workshop in early November. In the meantime, City Hall staff will be crafting an ordinance based on local laws adopted by Portland, according to City Manager Scott Morelli. 

The City Council also met in executive session Wednesday for about 45 minutes to discuss Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s lawsuit challenging the city’s Clear Skies Ordinance.
 
The problem with short-term rentals seems most acute in the neighborhoods near Willard Beach, according to residents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, with owners turning over single-family homes entirely to short-term rentals. Many buyers do not live in the homes they purchase, the residents said, making them concerned the trend could hollow out prime neighborhoods and increase housing prices.

Residents told the council that homes in the popular beach neighborhood are selling overnight for far above asking prices – by as much as $30,000 – and are then turned into short-term rentals. 

Around 50 people filled council chambers on Wednesday evening, a rare occurrence for a workshop. 

“I can see this destroying neighborhoods,” Councilor Brad Fox said. “I can see this being mini unregulated capitalism at its worst.”

Fox said he wants to see some “very strong regulations” put into place.

“We can’t come up with some wishy-washy things that we sometimes do to make people happy,” Fox said.  “We need to come up with something tough to protect the neighborhoods.”

Fox said he wants to “make sure they don’t spread like a cancer.” 

Twenty-two people spoke during the workshop, with some calling the situation a “nightmare” and describing the “worst summer of their lives.” Others who own rental proprieties told councilors they worked hard and their investment properties are not causing problems. Some said they live in their properties full time or live nearby, and their rentals help the local economy.

Residents described parties, drinking, frequent early morning noise disturbances, obscenities and a concern for their children’s safety.

Peggy Fuller, who lives on Grant Street, said she has Airbnb rentals on both sides of her home.

“It is no different than living next to a motel. It isn’t a motel, but it is like a motel,” Fuller said.

Louise Tate, who lives on Deake Street, a single-family home in her neighborhood is being rented out to 16 people at a time.

“I’m very frightened,” Tate said. “It seems to be a commercial operation in a residential neighborhood.  I don’t understand it – 16 people in a small home.”

Ted Sillars said he owns an Airbnb building, but he is a carpenter, “not a fat-cat owner.” He said the rental gives him an opportunity for retirement. He said he and his partner live two blocks away and “have put their heart and soul” into the property.

“Our guests are amazing,” Sillars said. 

Sillars told the council that Airbnb shouldn’t be regulated.

“People are coming to this part of the country because it’s beautiful,” Sillars said. “It gives people the opportunity to occupy a space that has been set up for them.”

Diane Romano, who owns a home on Simonton Street in the Willard Beach neighborhood with her husband, called this summer “the worst in her life.” She said there are seven houses on her street and, at any given time, three of them seemed to be rented out.

Dan Romano described barking dogs every night, five or six cars in a yard, being woken up every night, and a three-day long party with people screaming obscenities. 

Marilys Scheindel and her husband, Robert, of Cape Elizabeth, own three single-family homes they rent out. She called the homes the three future homes of her family: one for her and her husband, and one for each child. She said the family plans to occupy the homes and are using the income to afford the properties. They maintain their homes and regularly meet with the tenants, she said. 

Robert Scheindel said the couple is not unsympathetic to the issues faced by residents, but they pay taxes in excess of $7,000 a year to the city. He said the Airbnbs and other short-term rentals”drive economic value” and benefit local businesses.

Roberta Zuckerman, who lives on Preble Street, said she hosted people in her home using her son’s former bedroom for two years, but no longer does. She said she is concerned about non-owner-occupied homes.

“I think it contributes to the escalating costs of housing,” Zuckerman said.

Councilor Claude Morgan said after hearing the comments he would like to focus on non-owner-occupied homes. 

He said he would want a registry of all short-term rentals, similar to what the city is doing with long-term rentals.

“I think it is common sense to have a registry; if you are going to rent out a home I think the city should have an interest in knowing,” Morgan said. ” … I think the resolution that I’m looking for (is) that a reasonable person would have reasonable relief from non-neighborhood-like activities.”

Councilor Linda Cohen agreed that the council needs to do something to address the issue, but said she isn’t sure a registration system is the answer.

“The problem is the bad tenants,” Cohen said.

She also pointed out that implementing a registration process would require extra work, which would mean added expense for the city. 

Councilor Eben Rose expressed concern about single-family homes that are not owner-occupied. “We have clearly said our residential zones are for single-family homes,” he said.

Rose said he likes Portland’s ordinance, which includes fees for hosts and occupancy caps on buildings. Portland also requires apartments or houses rented for 30 days or less to be registered.

“Just to get the ball rolling, we can start by using Portland’s ordinances,” Rose said. “This will take a big chunk of the problem away.”

Morgan said he also supports starting with Portland’s framework.

“I will be making strong distinctions between owner-occupied (and non-owner-occupied),” he said. “I do think owner-occupied are a healthy income for residents who might need it.”

Clear Skies

Councilors went into executive session to discuss the city’s motion, filed Oct. 5 in U.S. District Court in Portland, for a stay in the Clear Skies lawsuit proceedings.

The city was reacting to news last week that TransCanada Corp. had abandoned plans to build the Energy East Pipeline, which would have brought crude oil from western Canada to the Atlantic Coast.
 
South Portland in 2014 approved the Clear Skies Ordinance, which would effectively prohibit the Canadian tar sands oil from being shipped out of South Portland.
 
City officials were still determining how TransCanada’s decision could potentially affect the lawsuit, and Morelli and city councilors declined to say what was discussed in the executive session.

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

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