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Governments see issues, but Bellingham Airbnb hosts see cash in their short-term rentals

Heather Dalberg has paid off about a third of the cost of her new home with her Airbnb rental.
Heather Dalberg has paid off about a third of the cost of her new home with her Airbnb rental. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

When Chris Robinson first listed his home on Airbnb about 18 months ago, it was with reluctance. He wasn’t sure the home-rental app was right for him, but he and his wife were living on two teachers’ salaries, and they needed some extra cash to supplement their income. Around the same time, Robinson remodeled the shed in his backyard to create a place for his friends and family to stay when they visited.

“We had a friend come through and stay there, and he said it would be ideal for Airbnb,” Robinson said. “We loved the space, we were proud of it and we wanted to share it.”

300 Number of Bellingham area listings on Airbnb’s website

“So we gave it a try,” Robinson added. “And it was popular. People liked it.”

Now, Airbnb rentals have become an important part of Robinson’s life. He currently works as a food scientist, but the company is set to close in June – at which point Robinson will lose his job.

“I was trying to figure out how to replace my income,” Robinson said. “The job market wasn’t looking good. Coincidentally, a small bungalow across the street went up for sale, perfect for an Airbnb. … I made an offer, it was accepted and we’ve been renting it on Airbnb since the beginning.”

We just look forward to helping pay our property taxes. It’s doing that easily.

Brian Boatman, Airbnb host

Robinson is one of many Bellingham residents who uses Airbnb to supplement his income. On Airbnb’s website there are more than 300 listings in the Bellingham area.

Heather Dalberg, an administrative service manager at the Western Washington University music department, has paid off about a third of the cost of her new home with her Airbnb rental. Brian Boatman, the owner of Beaver’s Tree Service, takes in about $1,400 per month from his Airbnb listing – that’s double what he used to make when he rented it independently.

“I’m getting old, and through Airbnb and renting the cabin out, we’re getting a lot more than I did,” Boatman said. “We just look forward to helping pay our property taxes. It’s doing that easily.”

Boatman said there are two more Airbnbs right around the corner. He can see them both from his house which is just outside the city limits.

Whatcom County has discussed short-term rentals but is waiting for the state to weigh in before taking action. Hundreds of vacation rentals operate throughout the county, with concentrations in scenic Birch Bay, Glacier and Lake Whatcom. County planners found roughly 400 such rentals that would fall under the county’s jurisdiction by searching through listings on popular websites VRBO and Airbnb.

Despite the existing rentals in the city, Bellingham officials insist that operating an Airbnb in Washington state is technically illegal.

The laws

Rick Sepler, Bellingham’s planning director, said any form of “transient accommodation” – meaning a facility that is rented out for periods of less than 30 days – requires a license in Washington state.

While Airbnbs are very cool, and there are lots of opportunities, the challenge with visitors is that every day is Saturday.

Rick Sepler, Bellingham planning director

“People doing it now without a permit are skimming off our hotels who pay lodging tax, which is used to advertise Bellingham,” Sepler said. “This is creating friction.”

Sepler said the city has received five complaints about Airbnb rentals in the last two years, but the nature of Airbnb makes these laws difficult to enforce – the website doesn’t reveal the location of the house, or whether it’s being rented long enough to meet the 30-day limit.

“We’re aware folks have moved to renting their houses out for less than that period, and we have it on our list as something we wish to tackle,” Sepler said.

“While Airbnbs are very cool, and there are lots of opportunities, the challenge with visitors is that every day is Saturday,” Sepler added. “You can imagine what happens when you live next to a rental, and they’re having a barbecue and you’ve got to get up for work. What’s appropriate in a residential area?”

The guests

Robinson said folks have visited his Airbnb from all 50 states, the Netherlands, France, Germany and South Africa.

“People come for all sorts of reasons,” Dalberg said. “Babies being born, weddings, traveling through the town, wanting to learn about hiking through the area, visiting relatives.”

“I cannot believe how many people have come from far away that want to move to Bellingham,” Boatman said. “The last two and a half months, probably half a dozen people were staying that have come from far away, and they’re looking at the area to buy or to live.”

Robinson said he promotes neighborhood businesses when his guests ask for recommendations. He often sends guests to Nelson’s Market, just down the street from his Airbnb rental, as well as local restaurants like McKay’s Taphouse.

Dalberg said she never has problems with her guests – no noise complaints from neighbors, and no messes to clean up after check-out. She thinks that’s because Airbnb uses a review system for both the host and guests. After her guests leave, Dalberg can rate and review them, which will impact their ability to rent using the app in the future.

“I just love it,” Dalberg added. “People are really good. They really want to do the best they can because of the social reporting we do on each other.”

You have to know what kind of person you are if you want to do this... If you aren’t willing to help people in the middle of the night, then you shouldn’t do it.

Heather Dalberg, Airbnb host

Dalberg, Boatman and Robinson all warned their neighbors before they started renting out Airbnbs in the neighborhood. One of his neighbors even offered Boatman some space in his driveway for his guests to park.

“They all know,” Boatman said. “We have all great neighbors, so no one’s said anything.”

“Our guests, if they’ve caused any disruption, I’m unaware of that,” Robinson said.

In her DNA

Dalberg said her Airbnb about a mile away from Lake Whatcom is booked year-round, almost every night.

“You have to know what kind of person you are if you want to do this,” Dalberg said. “I answer phone calls with problems 24 hours a day. If you aren’t willing to help people in the middle of the night, then you shouldn’t do it.”

“One person once told me, ‘You have an inn-keeper’s heart,’” Dalberg said. “That was great.”

Boatman said his wife, Sandra, does almost all the work for their small cabin Airbnb rental. She used to work in the hotel industry in Switzerland, and now the hospitality industry is “in her DNA.”

The Boatmans keep chickens in their backyard, and Sandra harvests their eggs to give to their Airbnb guests every morning.

“I enjoy taking a place that’s kind of beat up and making it nice,” Robinson said. “I feel proud, in a way, that we’re able to improve the neighborhood.”

Moving forward

Sepler said the city will likely address the growing number of Bellingham Airbnbs in the near future. Some possible compromises could include a more flexible limit on the amount of days that hosts can rent out their Airbnbs, or perhaps a requirement that an Airbnb host can only rent out one property at a time.

We as a community have to go through and decide where it’s OK and where it’s not.

Rick Sepler, Bellingham planning director

Sepler is also concerned about guests’ parking and outdoor use.

“Our department’s role is to identify the issues … and make our starting point recommendation to the Planning Commission for what would be the best fit for Bellingham,” Sepler said.

“In the right circumstances, (Airbnb rentals) provide a really good alternative for folks for travel,” Sepler added. “We as a community have to go through and decide where it’s OK and where it’s not.”

In the meantime, Robinson hopes the city loosens some restrictions on local Airbnb rentals, and he’ll keep his rental open for business as summer vacation approaches.

“It’s people like me who are unemployed, struggling with work, retired, single-income families able to use their location to monetize that and cobble together some more income,” Robinson said.

“Just in my small little world, it seems it might have improved our neighborhood, and that it’s a good, decent source of income for Bellinghamsters.”

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