Finding a level playing field for online rentals
Cindy Fera, of 25 Morgan Ave. on Warwick Neck, runs an Airbnb. She rents out two rooms and has been able to augment her income by nearly $16,000 a year. The venture has introduced her to many wonderful people. It has also been an introduction to city government, which hasn’t been nearly as positive.
Fera started noticing a decline in guests more than a year ago, and when Airbnb suggested she drop her prices she started looking into how many Airbnbs there are in Warwick. The city does not specifically license online rentals, but has zoning for a bed and breakfast. The city building department knew of only two zoning approved bed and breakfasts in Warwick, one of them being Fera’s.
Fera knew there were many more. Her Internet survey found at least 20 others in Warwick.
Fera is fine with competition. That’s the system of free enterprise, but she is not happy when the rules aren’t applied fairly.
Fera says she went through hoops to gain city approval to operate a bed and breakfast. She found many regulations reasonable, such as widening her drive so that cars could park off the street and replacing smoke detectors even though they were live-wired to her home. She discovered that even live-wired detectors have a life of 10 years.
In total, she said she spent about $2,000 to meet all the city requirements. What upset her was to discover that many of the other Airbnbs had not gone through the same rigorous process and, in fact, the city didn’t even know they existed.
Mayor Scott Avedisian aims to bring some law to what some call the “wild west” of online room rentals.
In a press release issued earlier this week, the mayor said the city would seek request for proposals (RFPs) for qualified persons or firms to provide short-term rental compliance solutions/services to the city. The aim is to retain a person or company to help enforce short-term rental regulations.
“Without guidelines and a monitoring system in place for short-term rentals, we run the risk of turning our residential neighborhoods into quasi-hotel and motel areas,” Avedisian said in a statement. “We risk displacing our residents and altering the character of our neighborhoods. By hiring an outside company, we will be able to more efficiently monitor these activities and better enforce our existing regulations.”
The plan has Fera seeing red because she thinks the city hasn’t tried to enforce regulations. She suggested the city could locate the units and told personnel how to do it.
The online listing of rentals carries descriptions of properties along with photographs and a map pinpointing them. Addresses aren’t included. Using that information, Fera said she and a friend located six properties in an hour about a year ago. She suggested the city do the same thing but said she was told by building department personnel they didn’t have Internet access.
She turned to her councilman, Ed Ladouceur, but his inquiries didn’t change anything. She said she even prepared a list of the things she had to do to her house and offered to give it to the city so that property owners would have an idea of what they had to do.
“People don’t know what they’re getting into,” she said.
She said she was told conditions varied by property and her list wasn’t needed.
Meanwhile, she could see a growing list of rentals on the Internet. She wanted action and went to the mayor’s office late last year. That’s when things escalated.
“I wanted every business held to the same standard I was,” she said.
She met with Chief of Staff Ray Studley, who she said told her that he had checked with police and her Airbnb was not registered with them. She feels Studley’s action was an effort to intimidate her, as there is no requirement that online rentals register with police.
Studley agreed Wednesday that there should be a “level playing field” for online rentals. He feels the RFP process will give the city a basis to compare whether it would be beneficial to hire or assign personnel to tracking down the rentals or to hire a consultant to do it.
Asked about police registration, Studley, a former state police officer, said it would be helpful in emergency situations for police and the fire department to know whether people other than the property owners could be on the premises. He also questioned whether the Department of Health should be involved.
Studley suggested licensing “or some sort of documentation” with police. He said the RFP is in the process of being drafted and that he thought he could have proposals in another 60 days.
In the release, Avedisian said Warwick is following the success of Newport in issuing a RFP relative to regulating and identifying online rentals. Avedisian said the city is issuing a Request for Proposals for a limited zoning code rewrite, which will include the addition of language to address issues such as Airbnbs, alternative energy, marijuana growing facilities, and electronic message signs that are not presently part of the zoning ordinance.
Ladouceur found no need to issue an RFP. He said the city should fairly enforce existing regulations, as it has required of Fera.