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Airbnb resists city efforts to regulate it

Airbnb argued Thursday that it should be able to keep the names and addresses of its Portland hosts out of the hands of the city Bureau of Development Services, which hopes to use the information to prod Airbnb hosts to get city permits required before they can rent out rooms in their homes for stays of less than 30 days.

So far, only 110 local Airbnb hosts have sought permits under the city’s short-term rental ordinance adopted in July, or an estimated 7 to 8 percent of those subject to the ordinance. That doesn’t include several hundred Portland hosts who rent out rooms in apartments and condos, which won’t become legal until a pending city ordinance is passed in January. Nor does it include hosts advertising through other companies, such as Craigslist.

Revenue Bureau Director Thomas Lannom proposed an ordinance requiring Airbnb and other booking agents to collect lodging taxes from their local hosts, and provide the names and addresses of the hosts to the bureau to assure compliance. The ordinance, debated Thursday by the Portland City Council, also would require Airbnb and other booking agents to require hosts to post their permit numbers on ads promoting the local rooms for rent.

Mike Liefeld, an enforcement program manager for the Bureau of Development Services, said it would be easy for the bureau to send out mass mailings to the 92 percent of hosts who never sought BDS inspections or applied for licenses.

But David Owen, a government affairs specialist for San Francisco-based Airbnb, said his company has been the first to collect taxes from its hosts, and objects to the Revenue Bureau sharing the names and addresses of its hosts with another bureau. Owen likened it to the National Security Agency mining personal data on Americans from phones and the Internet. The city shouldn’t get “unfettered access” to its hosts’ personal information without getting a court subpoena, Owen testified.

“We want to make sure that someone who occupies a room in a building that you advertise is safe,” responded City Commissioner Nick Fish. “Shame on us if they’re not and something bad happens. We’re complicit, and that’s why we have these rules.”

Commissioner Steve Novick said Airbnb was suggesting that the city’s two bureaus would have to duplicate each others’ efforts if the names and addresses of hosts aren’t shared. “You’re in effect asking us to be a very inefficient government,” Novick told Owen.

Airbnb isn't the only short-term rental booking agent resisting city regulations. A new group called the Short Term Rental Advocacy Center, which represents Airbnb and two competitors, HomeAway and FlipKey, sent a letter to city officlals last week protesting the city's proposed crackdown on laggard hosts who haven't gotten permits or paid lodging taxes. Though Airbnb has voluntarily agreed to collect lodging taxes, the group opposes making that mandatory.

"Regulations that require short-term rental companies to track and report rental information are an unnecessary regulatory burden on all parties involved, including the city," the letter reads. "Implementing a system that seeks to deputize short-term rental platforms as a policing mechanism is clearly just an abdication of responsibility by the city of Portland, not to mention a violation of the privacy of the platforms’ end users."

Commissioner Amanda Fritz defended Airbnb as the one company that has offered to cooperate with the city in collecting taxes. The city should spend its time now going after the other online brokers of short-term rentals whose local hosts aren’t paying any lodging taxes or seeking permits, Fritz said.

Fish repeatedly asked Owen if Airbnb planned to comply with the ordinance once it’s passed, but Owen was noncommittal. Fish said he’d be reluctant to expand short-term rentals into multifamily properties if the enforcement mechanism is likely to be tied up in court for years.

The city already is involved in litigation against Uber, another San Francisco-based company in the “sharing economy,” which allows anyone to become a taxi driver with their own car, and connects them with riders using smartphones.

Steve Law can be reached at 503-546-5139 or stevelaw@portlandtribune.com .

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