The Press Herald’s Aug. 20 lead front-page story (“Short-term rental tensions surge, and some just can’t live with it”) underscores the problems Airbnb, HomeAway and other short-term rentals are creating. Their numbers have increased dramatically; they are everywhere; they are largely unregulated; they are almost certainly under-taxed. The result – housing costs in Portland are among the highest in the state; so, too, are long-term rental costs. Demand exceeds supply while hundreds of units sit empty most nights of the year awaiting the random summer and early fall arrival of high-paying 10-day, five-day or weekend visitors.
A further, more ominous, result: We are driving away younger, well-educated singles and young families who have long-term needs, who would buy or rent these often empty units, who would become the backbone of the next generation that would call Portland home – but who can’t afford current market rates to buy or rent in the city.
At the same time, we are slowly hollowing out the character and fiber of residential neighborhoods that have been in place for decades, sometimes longer – Rosemont, Deering, East Deering, Munjoy Hill, the West End. Drop-in visitors don’t care about the quality of life in neighborhoods, the quality of schools, local health and safety issues, neighborhood parks and green spaces.
They come, they park, they visit, they party, they shower, they put the trash where they will, they pay their bill, they go. A relative handful of property owners make a windfall profit catering to this Airbnb crowd. A larger number of residential homeowners in Portland see their quality of life and the value of their homes diminished (to varying degrees) by this mixed bag of transient visitors.
In short, the current trade-off Portland has made with short-term rentals lacks common sense. It is antithetical to the long-term best interests of the city, and it is unfair to the large majority of existing residential homeowners who value their neighborhoods, and who (for years) have justifiably relied on city zoning laws to preserve the equity they have in their property.
We don’t need to ban short-term rentals – we do need to rein in what has become a runaway train. We would do well to begin by rereading the long-standing “purpose” sections in the code of every residential zone in the city.
The R-1, R- 2 and R-3 zones all seek to provide for lower- to medium-density “development characterized by single-family homes on individual lots.” The R-4 zone would “preserve the unique character of the Western Promenade area of the city by controlling residential conversions.” The R-5 zone would “ensure the stability of established medium-density neighborhoods by controlling residential conversions.” The R-6 zone would “conserve the existing housing stock and residential character of neighborhoods.” This zoning language should count for something.
Eliminating short-term rentals in some or all of these residential zones, or sharply limiting their number, should be considered. Residential uses are currently permitted in almost all of the city’s mixed-use, business and industrial zones. That’s where short-term rentals more appropriately fit in; there is no reason why they should not be limited to these areas of the city. And even here, their total number should be capped.
Finally, Portland should take note of the fact that other cities in Europe and the U.S. have experienced what we have experienced – the explosion of short-term rentals and rising housing and rental cost problems. But they have responded – a near-universal pushback has begun. Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, New York, San Francisco, Santa Monica and New Orleans have all put stringent short-term rental limits in place.
Many of the following steps have been taken in these cities: requiring that all short-term rentals be licensed; limiting the total number of short-term rentals in the city; limiting where short-term rentals may be located; taxing short-term rentals commensurate with hotel and other accommodation taxes; allowing short-term rentals only in owner-occupied residential structures; limiting the number of short-term rentals in any one structure to one or two units; imposing the same occupant safety regulations on short-term rentals that hotels, motels, etc., must meet; and, finally, cracking down hard on unlicensed, clandestine short-term rentals.
These are the directions that Portland needs to be moving in. And we need to act now.