People looking to offer Airbnb-type rentals based out of houses and apartments in Astoria may be required get a permit in the future.
The Astoria City Council discussed new, stricter requirements for rental operations during a work session Wednesday. A proposal detailing a permit structure and amendments to city code could be in front of the council to discuss — and vote on — sometime in the next three months.
A draft permit process staff presented Wednesday builds on Astoria’s minimal requirements for homestay lodging and represents an attempt to curb illegal rentals — an issue cities across the country have struggled with since the rise of vacation rental advertising platforms like Airbnb and VRBO.
“This isn’t the last bite of the apple, but it provides us with the ability to start putting something in writing now,” City Manager Brett Estes said.
Astoria does not allow vacation rentals — where an entire house is rented out — in residential neighborhoods, but does allow a short-term rental option referred to as homestay lodging. The city asks people setting up homestay lodging in their house or apartment to file a business license with the city, submit lodging taxes to the Finance Department and meet off-street parking requirements. The homes also must be owner-occupied with an owner on site when guests or renters are present.
A permit for homestay lodging would apply across the city’s zones and require people to submit more information, making it easier for staff and police to track rentals, address issues as they come up and ensure an operation is in compliance, Estes and City Planner Nancy Ferber said.
A permit may not be able to cut back on people who rent out illegally, Estes said, but “if there’s a little bit of a hammer to say if you sign up and you don’t have the permit, there is a penalty associated with it. … Word will get out, ‘Hey you really need to go through the city process to avoid any of these issues.’”
City councilors disagree about the degree to which Airbnb-type rental practices and homestay lodging reduce available housing or impact the economy. They do worry about the overall effect on the community and the illegal operations that bypass city requirements such as paying the lodging tax.
Right now, city staff have compliance information on only 15 hosts, but are working to investigate other rental operations to determine who is and who isn’t following the rules. The Finance Department saw $9,900 in lodging tax collected from hosts in 2016, up from $1,400 the year before. But it is nowhere near what the city should be collecting, Finance Director Susan Brooks said.
“When we were speaking with Airbnb they indicated that based on the sales that were booking through their site in 2015, they would have collected and turned over about $20,000 worth of transient room tax versus the $1,400 that we saw and that was just Airbnb,” Brooks said.
A list of properties offering Airbnb-type or homestay rentals, generated by Councilor Cindy Price and amended by staff, lists more than 60 properties, only some of which appear to be in compliance with city codes. It is by no means an exhaustive list, Ferber said.
Though Ferber and the city’s building codes permit technician, Lisa Ferguson, have been working with Clatsop County to further identify illegal rentals and bring them into compliance, the city does not have a clear sense of how many Airbnb-type rentals are active.
“It’s a landscape that changes daily,” Brooks said.
Price and Councilor Zetty Nemlowill commended the staff for their work, but argued that Astoria should also consider capping the number of short-term rentals allowed, saying such rentals exacerbate a shortage of workforce housing. Price suggested also putting a limit on the number of nights people could rent rooms out to visitors, saying it would discourage people from buying second homes only to rent them out as vacation rentals year-round.
Mayor Arline LaMear and Councilor Bruce Jones were not convinced a cap is necessary, or that people who rent out on a short-term basis would ever be interested in opening those same rooms to long-term renters. Jones suggested implementing staff’s suggestions and taking additional steps as needed.
Councilor Tom Brownson challenged the idea that Airbnb is as negative a force as Nemlowill and Price indicated. He said he was open to talking about a cap, but agreed with Jones that it would be best to implement a permit first and wait to see what more is needed.
The city is lucky Airbnb-type rentals are a relatively new phenomenon, he said.
“We’ve got to curtail this a little bit and control it a little bit … and design it for our community,” he said.