New regulations for Airbnb and other short-term rentals are starting to take form and could be passed by Spokane's City Council next month.
In recent years, short-term rentals (defined as a rental shorter than 30 days) have proliferated across the country with websites, most notably Airbnb, connecting strangers willing to open their homes to other strangers willing to pay to stay in them.
This growing segment of the sharing economy has brushed up against zoning codes that weren’t designed for the rise of short-term rentals. In spring of last year, city code enforcement told Airbnb hosts that they could be breaking the law
but halted any further action while it convened a group of stakeholders to a craft a way forward.
The results of those stakeholder meetings was unveiled April 1 in council chambers in a presentation attended by several members of the city council and residents of Spokane interested in the issue.
“Short-term rentals have and will continue to operate in our cities,” said Councilman Mike Allen, who oversaw the presentation, noting that regulations would need to be changed for an industry that’s all but certain to continue growing.
The Spokane Plan Commission offered a slightly modified version of the recommendation from a stakeholders group, which met for 10 months. Both allow for homeowners to rent out their property without being present and require hosts to get a permit.
One of the big sticking points has been a state requirement that short-term rentals be equipped with fire-suppression sprinklers, which can cost between $3,000 to $6,500 to install. Allen said he tried to convince legislators to change the law to no avail. In the meantime, any short-term rentals that are not occupied by the owner are required to have the sprinklers.
But these regulations are unlikely to please everyone. One issue at stake is whether or not to allow Airbnb hosts to rent out homes they were not living in. About half of short-term rentals in Spokane aren’t owner-occupied, and residents have complained that under this arrangement unsupervised guests have been loud and less-than-neighborly.
John Dietzman, who served on the stakeholders group, expressed concerns about the impact short-term rentals may have on neighborhoods, particularly those that aren’t owner-occupied. He said he couldn’t support the stakeholder group's recommendations, which include a provision allowing Airbnb hosts to rent out entire houses without actually living there. He offered an alternative set of regulations that required owners to live in their rental.
“A strong neighborhood is made of relationships between the various homeowners: long-term relationships, a group of people who work together and work on problems together,” he said, likening a neighborhood to a quilt that would be weakened by having homes only temporarily occupied by visitors.
Rebecca Mack, an Airbnb host, offered a different perspective, saying that she and her husband had rehabilitated a vacant home in the Perry District that’s now a short-term rental. Neighbors, she said, are pleased it’s now occupied. Mack also noted that some guests just want the place to themselves, such as a family who came to Spokane dealing with a dying family member.
“I can tell you they did not want me in the other bedroom,” she says.
Several people showed up to speak in favor of short-term rentals, praising them as a way to make extra money for hosts while bringing in visitors who spend money at local businesses. Mari-Pat Corrigan spoke of how being an Airbnb host has been an enriching experience, recalling how a family from Brunei stayed with her and wore traditional garb to go see their son graduate from Gonzaga University.
“It was one of the most enriching experiences that we've had and we've had several of those in this process,” she said.