Now unregulated, short-term rentals like Airbnb are facing new rules in Bellingham

Owner Chris Robinson of Bellingham in front of his Airbnb on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Robinson bought the former two-bedroom college student rental and fixed it up. He said it is rented constantly.
Owner Chris Robinson of Bellingham in front of his Airbnb on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Robinson bought the former two-bedroom college student rental and fixed it up. He said it is rented constantly. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

The city is moving to regulate vacation rentals and could require homeowners to apply for a business license, pay taxes and follow increasingly stringent rules depending on whether they rent out a room or a whole house – and how often.

The effort is still early, though the Planning Commission is weighing possibilities. Final consideration would have to come from the City Council, likely some time in 2018.

Bellingham calls such use “short-term rentals,” referring to a stay of fewer than 30 nights.

Most people know them as private rooms or houses rented through popular websites such as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway.

There are about 345 active rentals in the Bellingham area, according to AirDNA, which analyzes the Airbnb market. Of that total, about 33 hosts manage more than one Airbnb listing, the city noted.

They’re spread throughout the city with the greatest concentration in Samish, South Hill, Silver Beach, Columbia, Cornwall Park and Lettered Streets neighborhoods.

There are many sites that cater to property owners involved in such short-term rentals but the city used numbers from Airbnb because it was the most popular.

They need to be regulated. They need to be licensed. I’m concerned we’ll lose our sense of community.

Anne Mackie, Bellingham resident

Such short-term rentals aren’t technically allowed in the city because they haven’t been defined in its municipal code.

That will soon change as Bellingham, like other cities, works to catch up to the market even though consumer demand here isn’t as strong as it is in similar-sized cities, such as Bend, Oregon, which has 2,254 listings, and Boulder, Colorado, which has 1,587 listings.

“At this point it’s unregulated. We’re going to have to go to regulated,” said Rick Sepler, Bellingham planning director.

Whatcom County also is crafting regulations for such vacation 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 the VRBO and Airbnb websites.

Concern for ‘sense of community’

Thanks to the Internet, such rentals are an increasingly popular way for tourists to explore a vacation destination.

But they can create a number of problems in residential neighborhoods.

Some residents say a revolving door of visitors makes it difficult to know who’s in their neighborhood and cite frustrations with parking and noise from vacationers who are there to have a good time while they’re trying to get some sleep.

Others said housing is already in short supply and expensive in Bellingham and allowing such rentals further constricts the supply for residents and drives up prices.

“Why are we discussing allowing our neighborhoods to become commercial tourist zones with short-term rentals when just last week we had a packed house talking about the need for affordable housing, and that there’s a crisis and a shortage?” Anne Mackie, a York Neighborhood resident, said to the Bellingham Planning Commission at its September meeting.

Mackie, a neighborhood activist, supported the city looking at new rules.

“They need to be regulated. They need to be licensed,” Mackie said in an interview. “Do we want them at all in residential neighborhoods, single-family neighborhoods? I’m concerned we’ll lose our sense of community.”

Lisa Pool, Bellingham senior planner, said the city’s housing issues aren’t likely going to be solved by having the regulations in place.

“It’s just one piece of the puzzle we need to look at,” Pool said.

Rental requirements, maybe

The city has to consider the different uses behind such rentals. They range from someone charging $20 a night for a room in a house to help pay for the mortgage, to those who rent their space out for a month or two while they’re somewhere else, to those who rent a house year-round.

Possible rules being considered are:

▪ requiring the owners of all short-term rentals to file an application, get a business license and pay applicable taxes, such as lodging and business and occupation. Airbnb has been collecting taxes for its hosts since October 2015, but the city said many other websites don’t – leaving it up to local governments to try to do so.

▪ parking requirements, quiet hours and a ban on large parties and events.

▪ requiring hosts to make sure there’s a local contact that responds within two hours – a nod to neighborhood concerns about absentee property owners – and make sure their rentals meet basic safety, such as having fire and carbon monoxide alarms.

▪ temporarily prohibiting short-term rentals in the Lake Whatcom watershed, which is the source of drinking water for Bellingham, until a shoreline review in in 2020.

▪ a tiered regulatory approach based on how many rooms and how often a space is rented out. In short, hosts who rent out a whole house year-round may have to get a conditional use permit, which is a tougher regulatory requirement than other uses.

▪ limiting the number of conditional use permits to one per owner.

“We don’t want to make them businesses and we certainly don’t want to lose housing stock we need for residents,” Sepler said.

Airbnb has been, for me and my family, helping us through this unemployment time, helping us cobble (together) some income to live here.

Chris Robinson, Bellingham resident

For their part, city officials said they will try to do three things as they move toward regulations:

▪ Balance the economic opportunity created by short-terms rentals with the need to maintain Bellingham’s supply of long-term housing.

▪ Level the playing field for hotels/motels and home-sharing services by making everyone follow the same requirements when it comes to issues such as paying taxes and safety requirements.

Some short-term rentals already are registered and paying taxes, the city acknowledged, which also is required by the state Department of Revenue.

▪ Protect the rights and safety of owners, guests and neighbors.

Sepler said the city wanted to hear the community’s response to the proposed regulations.

“How restrictive or how liberal will probably be adjusted on each of those points,” he said. “We’re not trying to rush it.”

‘Cobble (together) some income’

Bellingham resident Chris Robinson, who lives in the York Neighborhood, rents out a studio and a house across the street from his home through Airbnb.

Robinson, who lost his job as a food scientist when his employer shut down, said the income from his short-term rentals is allowing his family to continue living in Bellingham.

1022 Air BnB3
Owner Chris Robinson of Bellingham at his studio Airbnb in the backyard of his home on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

“Airbnb has been, for me and my family, helping us through this unemployment time, helping us cobble (together) some income to live here,” he said. “It allows us to afford to live here.”

Robinson, who said he supported regulations, also noted that he lived in a neighborhood where homes already are being bought and turned into student rentals.

A lot of houses rented to students can get beat up, he said, noting that the house he’s renting out as an Airbnb was trashed before he bought it and fixed it up.

“Having a vacation rental you have to maintain it on almost a daily basis,” Robinson said, “and so it has improved our neighborhood.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

On the web

▪ cob.org: Type “short term rental regulations” into the search window.

▪ dor.wa.gov: Type “personal home rentals” into the search window.

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