Our Opinion: Open up short-term rental discussion
Back in October, Mayor Ted Wheeler told the Tribune there's a "new sheriff in town" — himself — to assure scofflaw short-term rental companies such as Airbnb start following city rules.
He likened the companies' habitual flouting of the city ordinance to the "Wild West."
If Wheeler is to be taken seriously, a good start would be to bring up pending changes in how the city regulates such companies for a city council vote, after allowing the public to weigh in.
Curiously, for a city that prides itself on public participation, the mayor's staff instead is poised to deregulate these companies behind closed doors via administrative action, circumventing the city council and the public.
That's a terrible idea, especially after hundreds of Portlanders filed formal complaints about short-term rentals in their neighborhoods, and an August 2018 audit slammed the city for lax regulation of Airbnb and its rivals.
In 2014, Portland first enabled homeowners and tenants to rent out rooms on a nightly basis in their homes, apartments and condos. City officials patted themselves on the back for passing one of the nation's first comprehensive city ordinances to legalize and regulate short-term rentals. That action followed multiple public hearings, where dozens of people and interest groups helped city officials vet policy approaches.
Four years later, city attorneys and regulators who report to Wheeler insist they have the authority to rewrite the rules administratively, without public input or a city council vote.
The changes would allow Airbnb and its peers to sign up their own hosts, ending mandatory safety inspections of their homes. Airbnb, which proposed the idea, calls it "pass-through registration." We'd call that deregulation.
There may be valid reasons to consider the idea, but only after it's thoroughly aired with the public.
There are several thousand short-term rental hosts in Portland who may want to comment or could provide valuable testimony. There are many times that number of people who have stayed in such properties, and have a right to assume the rooms are safe for occupancy.
There are other sectors heavily affected by changes in the short-term rental industry, including hotels, bed and breakfasts, and regular home and apartment landlords. Neighborhood associations would want to weigh in.
It's true that the city expects to retain the right to conduct spot inspections of short-term rentals, but those would likely only come after someone formally complained.
But it's laughable to assume that Airbnb and some of its peers can be trusted to faithfully assure their hosts meet city requirements such as smoke detectors in every room, carbon monoxide detectors, and safe ways to exit properties in case of a fire.
These same companies have long ignored the city ordinance requiring that hosts get city permits, following site inspections, before they may be listed for rent on Airbnb and other websites.
As the Tribune has reported, Airbnb has for months, if not years, had a fake host listed on its website named Nadia — identified by a photo that appears to be of a model, not the real host — advertising hundreds of spaces for rent in Portland and four other cities. Photos used to depict the rentals also are fake.
After the Tribune exposed the sham, Airbnb restricted access to Nadia's listings in Portland but retained them, with the photo of the fake host, in the other cities, and has the nerve to continue stating on its website that Nadia's identity was confirmed. This is the company the city expects to delegate vetting its own hosts?
The city's contemplated move to deregulate short-term rentals administratively without a hearing or public vote raises some basic questions.
What are they afraid of? And are they doing this at the bidding of Airbnb and other short-term rental companies? And does the city care more about collecting revenue from short-term rentals than assuring they are safely operated and not disrupting neighborhoods?
We look forward to a debate of those and other questions in a public forum.