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City tells Airbnb hosts: Pay up


The city of Portland is going easy on residents who fail to get permits before renting out rooms to short-term tenants, but it may be a different story when it comes to not paying lodging taxes from such operations.

Last Wednesday, Revenue Bureau Director Thomas Lannom suggested that Portland city commissioners require Airbnb and other short-term-rental services to provide addresses of their hosts, to make sure they’re paying lodging taxes to the city. “I intend to recommend exactly that step to council in the next few weeks,” Lannom said.

Lannom told the City Council he wants to be more proactive in going after tax laggards than the Bureau of Development Services has been for Airbnb and other hosts who haven’t met new city permit requirements.

In July, Portland City Council made it legal for residents to rent out rooms in homes for less than 30 days, if they obtained city permits starting Aug. 30. Permits cost $178 and require cursory safety inspections at homes. But only 81 hosts had applied for permits by Nov. 20 — nearly three months after the deadline — and only 43 permits have been issued, according to the Bureau of Development Services. An estimated 1,600 Portland properties are listed for short-term rentals in the city just with Airbnb, and there are many others who use Craigslist or other services.

Last week, city commissioners debated a proposal by Mayor Charlie Hales to allow Airbnb-style short-term rentals in multifamily properties as well as single-family homes, and they expect to pass the ordinance next week. But city commissioners find themselves in a rather embarrassing situation of expanding the short-term rental system into condos and apartments when very few people are following the new ordinance for single-family homes.

Under the city’s “complaint-based” system, the Bureau of Development Services won’t go out of its way to make sure people follow the new permit requirements, unless and until someone complains about an individual operator. “We rely on complaints to enforce a lot of things in the zoning code,” Hales said. “Do we think this is a big enough problem that we want to start ramping up enforcement down the road? I don’t know.”

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, said it wasn’t a high priority for the bureau. If she had some extra money for enforcement, Fritz said, she’s put it into

inspections at distressed properties and properties in East Portland.

Under a deal reached earlier this year with Airbnb, the San Francisco company agreed to collect the 11.5 percent lodging tax from its hosts in Portland, and hand the money in one lump sum to the city each quarter. Airbnb refuses to divulge the names and addresses of its hosts, so it’s impossible for the city to know if all the hosts are collecting the tax and paying their proper share to the city, which shares the proceeds with Multnomah County and tourism promotion efforts. Nor does the city have a way of collecting taxes from people doing short-term rentals via Craigslist or other Airbnb competitors.

Airbnb did oblige the city by agreeing to post peoples’ permit numbers on its web-based home listings. However, most of those remain blank, because such a tiny share of hosts have even sought the permits.

Commissioner Nick Fish said he was less concerned about lost city revenue and more worried about health and safety violations if people don’t seek permits, because the inspections assure there are smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms, and that hosts are renting proper bedrooms.

“At some point there’s going to be a human consequence,” Fish said.

Fish grilled David Owen, the Airbnb public policy specialist at last Wednesday’s council meeting, about how Airbnb can assure that its local hosts obey the city ordinance and seek permits. “You may be in the best position to help us regulate and assure that people get a permit,” Fish said.

“We can do more,” Owen said. But he was noncommital, saying the company relies on customers to file bad reviews of hosts to keep them in line. Airbnb could survey its local hosts and ask them what they think the barriers are to them seeking permits, Owen offered.

Airbnb says it sent an email to its hosts reminding them they need to get permits, and includes that information on a web page for Portland hosts. However, some people signed up as local Airbnb hosts, including Steve Unger, say they’ve never received the email from Airbnb.

Based on Owen’s remarks, the company doesn’t seem likely to cut hosts off its service merely because they failed to get city permits.

But Hales said Wednesday that the city could get a full list of residents who are hosting visitors on short stays if the Revenue Bureau gets lists from Airbnb and other intermediaries who publicize or broker the short-term rentals. “The plan is for them to share data” with the Bureau of Development Services, Hales said.

“On a property-by-property basis, then the question is what do we do about that?” Hales said. “Do we become more firm in our requirement, more than just a friendly email?”

The answer is unclear.

The ultimate goal, he said, was for people to get their permits, “and of course pay your taxes.”

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