Critics fear city isn't addressing all the key issues

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - An Airbnb host named John is offering six different homes and apartments for nightly rentals in this pocket of the Sellwood neighborhood. Tourists who want to spend the night in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood might want to talk to John.

John is offering six homes and apartments for nightly rentals in a tiny pocket of Sellwood in and around Yukon Street, using the Airbnb web-based service.

There’s the Yukon Getaway in Sellwood for $134 a night, the Gorgeous Home Close to Everything for $115, the Beautiful City Home in Sellwood for $202, the Cozy Yukon Studio Apartment for $129, the Beautiful 4 Bedroom, 2 Bath in Sellwood for $426, and the Yukon 4 Bedroom Home Sleeps 10 for $426.

Technically, those and some 1,500 other Airbnb listings in Portland are illegal.

However, the Portland City Council expects to put the finishing touches on an ordinance Wednesday that would bring short-term rentals in residential areas out of the underground economy and make them legal — and tax-paying.

At least some of them, that is.

In a work session last week, city commissioners made it clear they aren’t ready to legalize Airbnb and other short-term rentals in apartments and condos, or allow homes in residential-zoned areas to be used as dedicated vacation rentals. Commissioners informally agreed that Portlanders may rent out one or two bedrooms of their “primary residence” for less than 30 days at a time, if they obtain a city permit for $180, get their home inspected every six years and pay lodging taxes.

But there are other, undecided issues that city commissioners hope to resolve Wednesday, the last scheduled public hearing before they expect to adopt an ordinance on July 16:

• Can it be the host’s primary residence if they only live there six months a year? How about nine months?

• Must the host be on site when renting out spare bedrooms to tourists?

• Can the host hire an outside manager to handle short-term rentals, perhaps someone like John in the Yukon Street area?

Public safety fears

Several neighborhood associations say that Airbnb allows homes in their residential streets to become de facto motels.

But, in contrast to other cities around the country where Airbnb has been a hot-button issue, Portland city commissioners appear keen on embracing Airbnb and the “sharing economy” it espouses.

David Owen, the Airbnb public policy director who attended Tuesday’s work session, said the company was disappointed the commission isn’t allowing short-term rentals in apartments and condos. One-third of its Portland hosts live in multifamily units, Owen says.

“I still think this is a phenomenal step forward for those who are concerned about home-sharing,” Owen said.

Robert McCullough, treasurer of the Southeast Uplift coalition of neighborhood associations in Southeast Portland, argues that city commissioners haven’t

“done their homework” on a policy that upends lonstanding city efforts to protect the character of residential areas.

“This is a major change to our city; it contradicts our zoning, planning and our comprehensive plan for the last 100 years,” he says.

If a neighbor hung out a sign advertising short-term rentals in their home, people would object, McCullough says. But since the transactions happen over the Internet, people are less concerned, he figures.

Still, he says, it’s easy to use the information available on Airbnb listings to scope out the interiors of peoples’ homes, and ascertain when no one is around.

“What you’re effectively doing is you’re putting a signpost on the Internet that says, ‘burgle me,’ ” McCullough says.

Some city commissioners have compared the Airbnb system to people renting out homes for longer-term tenants, which is perfectly legal. McCullough says that’s different. “As my wife said, she’s not all that comfortable living next to 100 serial strangers next door” in a 100-day period.

Skeptics also have raised questions about legal liability. If a fire or other catastrophe occurs, damages may not be insured because the home is being used for commercial purposes without the owner paying higher premiums.

Staff from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Planning and Sustainability Commission concluded that renting out a home for the night is akin to other legal home-based businesses, such as teaching piano.

Skillful lobbying

San Francisco-based Airbnb also has played its cards right in its business and lobbying relationships with the city.

The company announced in March that it’s opening an operational headquarters in Old Town/Chinatown and will hire 160 people here. That same month, Airbnb announced Portland will be the first partner in its Shared City initiative. As part of that initiative, the company agreed to collect lodging taxes from its Portland guests and pass the funds along to the city.

Records filed with the city for the first quarter of 2014 show that Airbnb’s local lobbyist, Dan Jarman, has been quite active at City Hall. Jarman met with Mayor Charlie Hales’ staff three times in the first quarter to talk about office space for Airbnb’s proposed local operations center. From January through March, Jarman met with city officials, including Hales’ staff and City Commissioner Steve Novick, six other times. Jarman also reported seven phone calls with city officials, including one with Mayor Hales, in addition to numerous emails.

When the City Council scheduled its first public hearing on the proposed ordinance, Airbnb mobilized several dozen of its local hosts to sign up early to testify in favor of the measure, and ask for more lenient treatment than the proposed ordinance provided. Airbnb took the hosts out to lunch beforehand, which may have helped supporters prepare talking points for their testimony at the hearing.

Owen was reluctant to discuss that effort.

“We do a lot of these type events to talk to folks,” he said.

Airbnb hosts are expected to be out in force again Wednesday, when the City Council is expected to hold another public hearing at 2 p.m. at City Hall.

This time, Airbnb is asking its local hosts to meet at 1:30 p.m. at Happy Coffee beforehand.

Steve Law can reached at 503-546-5139 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

L.A. actress warns of aggressive Airbnb lobbying tactics

JOHNSONSan Francisco-based Airbnb likes to cloak itself with an image of “love, peace and the shared economy,” says Anne-Marie Johnson, who lives in the hip Silver Lake district north of downtown Los Angeles.

But Airbnb has grown into a $10 billion company, Johnson says, and when it lobbies government, “They are as aggressive as the NRA.”

Johnson, an elected leader of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, says she first learned about Airbnb when a dog got loose and bit someone after being let out by an Airbnb tenant. It turned out the same dog had bitten someone previously, Johnson says.

Later, she fielded residents’ complaints about one block with three Airbnb sites that were often used for raucous, noisy parties that went late into the night and tied up scarce parking. She learned of one eight-unit apartment building converted into a “boarding house” for Airbnb.

“It’s common for driveways to be blocked,” by Airbnb guests, Johnson says, including one notable time when a disabled woman couldn’t get her car out to get to a medical appointment.

“The biggest issue is the loss of affordable housing,” she says, as rent-controlled apartments get converted to Airbnb sites.

Johnson, an actress and producer best-known for her role in the “In the Heat of the Night” television series, started raising questions about Airbnb, arguing it doesn’t belong in residential-zoned parts of the neighborhood.

Then she marveled at how the company and its affiliated Peers lobbying arm mobilized dozens of Airbnb hosts to pack public meetings.

This spring, terms of all 21 members of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council were up, and Johnson organized a slate, mostly of incumbents, to run for re-election. But she says Airbnb helped mobilized a rival slate, including at least six of its local hosts, and mounted a strong campaign.

“Only two of us were re-elected,” she says. “The rest were slaughtered.”

She managed to hold on, but credits her Hollywood celebrity status with helping her eke out a win.

Other communities should be on their guard against Airbnb’s tactics, Johnson warns.

“This is an organization making sure that they plant their seed legislatively to force local governments to change ordinances to legalize an illegal activity.”

Airbnb declined to discuss specifics of the Silver Lake incidents.

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