NEWS

Landlords seek tweaks to short-term rental ordinance

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 1/25/23

With first passage of an ordinance that has been picked apart and transformed over a couple of meetings, the city council came a step closer to regulating short-term rentals and Airbnbs Wednesday …

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NEWS

Landlords seek tweaks to short-term rental ordinance

Posted

With first passage of an ordinance that has been picked apart and transformed over a couple of meetings, the city council came a step closer to regulating short-term rentals and Airbnbs Wednesday night.

“We’re this close,” William Gagnier told the council holding up his thumb and forefinger with enough space to slip in a cell phone. Gagnier, who operates an Airbnb on the Warwick sire of Pawtuxet and seven short-term rentals on the Cranston side of the village, has become the spokesman for a loosely organized group of 26 Airbnb operators, the Warwick Landlords Association. He said 71 Warwick Airbnbs are registered with the state.

Although Gagnier’s portrayal would suggest little needs to be done to come up with the legislation, City Council President Steve McAllister will serve as a “model” for the state, the issues being raised are more than changing a few commas and adding a couple of words.

That really wasn’t made clear Wednesday night although strides were made with a series of amendments introduced by Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi.

“Work with us and we’ll get this done,” Gagnier assured the council.

 After about an hour of discussion mostly between council members over what constitutes a bedroom (could any room of 70 square feet of livable space such as a kitchen and bathroom be a bedroom?), with some input from landlords, Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe introduced a second series of amendments. Even before getting into the amendments, which were handed out to council members and the audience, council members questioned how this would work given Sinapi’s amendments.

William Walsh, the council’s solicitor, advised the council to take a vote on the Sinapi amendments first and then consider and vote on Howe’s amendments that could end up being amendments of amendments. Before the process could be set in motion, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis called for a vote on the Sinapi amendment ordinance, which passed unanimously. McAllister questioned if the council would get a second bite at the apple, which Walsh said would be the case when it comes up for second passage.  Howe backed off from amending the ordinance, thus allowing McAllister to move on to the next item on the agenda.

Some of the landlords who were prepared to address the amendments were caught by surprise. “They silenced all of us,” said Angela Stamoulos, one of those who gathered outside chambers to sort out their next step.

“[We were] deliberately kept out. We haven’t been given the same amount of time,” said Gagnier to the group. Asked what is the issue with the ordinance that McAllister touts as a model, Gagnier labeled provision of the measure calling on landlords to keep records on their boarders including copies of driver’s licenses and automobile registrations “unconstitutional.”

“Only authorized officials can obtain such information,” he said. In a call Sunday, Gagnier emphasized, “were bound by privacy laws and the 4th Amendment can’t give that information out.” He says the ordinance needs to make it clear a short-term rental is “not a change of use from a single family home.” He chafes at the provision requiring twice annual building inspections of short-term rentals, noting that an initial inspection is appropriate, but more frequent inspections, “is just not right.”

Gagnier was not prepared to share the full list of provisions the group feels is onerous and subject to interpretation. Yet the ordinance has changed significantly since introduced by Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, who has worked on it over the past six months. He first took an interest in the issue of short-term rentals six years ago when Cindy Wilson, a constituent who operates an Airbnb on Warwick Cove, complained she was being singled out by the building department to meet overly strict code requirements costing thousands when other Airbnb operators weren’t cited.

In the six years he has operated an Airbnb on Spring Garden Street in Pawtuxet. Gagnier said he has hosted more than 2,000 guests between all his rentals. He said short-term rentals have become a way for people to secure their most important investment of their lives – their homes. It is a business and a means of sustaining community, points he emphasized.

Since last Wednesday’s council meeting, Gagnier said he has talked with some council members and he hopes to meet with city building official Alfred DeCorte to go over points of the ordinance as given first passage. Given the amount of work council members face, he said he looks to make their jobs easier by presenting revisions for their consideration. He feels there is time to arrive at a workable ordinance by the time the council considers second passage next month.

“We want this done right and not to rush this thing through because they’re [the council] tired of it,” he said.

Among those requirements of the amended ordinance granted first passage are: short-term renters register with the city and pay an annual $250 fee per dwelling unit; that the owner of a short-term rental  or their representative have a primary residence within 50 miles of the short-term rental property and  the maximum occupancy for a dwelling unit shall be two persons per bedroom.

The landlords are seeking clarification on the section dealing with penalties for violations and the revocation of permits. Violations of the ordinance are subject to a fine of not more than $500 a day for each violation and subsequent violation. The landlords feel some provisions of the ordinance are subject to interpretation and the fine can be subjectively exercised.  

landlords, rentals