Some of the more than 30 landlords of short term home rentals of less than 30 days, which under city ordinances is not permitted, believed a proposal to regulate Airbnbs was a “done deal” …
Some of the more than 30 landlords of short term home rentals of less than 30 days, which under city ordinances is not permitted, believed a proposal to regulate Airbnbs was a “done deal” before the City Council considered an ordinance that would have required owner occupation of premises to obtain a license. Nonetheless, they attended Monday night’s council meeting. And members of the City Council not only expected a lengthy meeting, but a contentious one.
After more than two hours of testimony, both the landlords and the council were surprised. So, too was Mayor Frank Picozzi who watched the meeting from home. They found they shared concerns over the owner-occupied provision of the ordinance and a willingness to mutually craft regulations for the 76 (or 73 depending on who was talking) Airbnbs in the city. The council voted to table a vote on the ordinance until the second meeting in December even though that comes on Christmas week and seemingly doesn’t provide sufficient time to hammer out an amended ordinance.
City Council President Steve McAllister rejected the suggestion that a vote be postponed to January on the basis of legal advice that if they were to do that, the process requiring the advertising of the ordinance and public hearings would need to start afresh. McAllister didn’t rule out that may yet happen, but moved ahead with tabling action until December to see what can be accomplished.
On Tuesday, Mayor Picozzi called the public hearing one of the most “civil” in recent memory without outbursts from the audience and the introduction of information that could prove valuable in crafting an ordinance. He favors holding a public forum as was done in drafting the solar ordinance.
That’s also the preferred path for Ward 9 Councilman Vincent Gebhart.
Gebhart said Monday’s hearing served to educate some council members about Airbnbs.
“We only get the complaints; bad apples end up on our desk,” Gebhart said.
Landlords pointed out Monday night the benefits of short term rentals and the provisions of Airbnb to weed out guests who might be the source of complaints as well as identify undesirable hosts based on the feedback from guests. They also talked of the attributes of giving a sampling of the Warwick community to people considering a move to Warwick and how Airbnbs can provide people with an affordable means for a family vacation or housing for people seeking to visit to attend a graduation, wedding or funeral here.
Permitting process suggested
Gebhart speculated the council didn’t hear from those who would favor an ordinance because of undesirable experiences that have had with Airbnb guests. He believes short term rentals “changes the fiber of a neighborhood.” He would favor a registration and permitting process for Airbnbs with a strict provision if “you have a nuisance you are shut down.” He thought revocation of a permit at any time would be good, although he acknowledged there would need to be some mechanism for due process.
Ladouceur said it has taken six years to get this far with an ordinance and that apart from revisions to the owner-occupied provision, which he is prepared to revise, he believes it would be “an enormous waste of time” to throw everything out and start over again with a forum. He thinks there is time to amend the ordinance and questioned if the council has the ability to waive rules to extend its deliberations.
Meanwhile, some landlords following the meeting feared the city Building Department that was present for the hearing was recording the names and addresses of those who testified would issue cease and desist orders thereby shutting them down.
Moratorium on enforcement
When asked if that might hppen, Picozzi favored a moratorium of cease and desist orders on Airbnbs until an ordinance is in place.
While short term rentals of less than 30 days are not permitted in the city, according to Ladouceur, who sponsored the ordinance with Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis, only one Airbnb is allowable. A cursory online search of Warwick Airbnbs found more than 20 properties for short term rental along with photographs of the units and a map of their locations. One night prices ranged from $80 for a room with a view of Conimicut light to $250 for a private waterfront home with accommodations for four guests hosted by Rob and Jackie.
Ladouceur explained he was compelled to address short term rental regulations when Cindy Wilson of Morgan Street, was “singled out by the Avedisian administration.” He said she underwent multiple housing inspections and was required to make multiple revisions to her property including a second driveway to operate an Airbnb for her Warwick Cove property. Wilson reasoned she was being unfairly discriminated against. She argued she was subject to inspection and meeting building codes for rentals when her competitors were not. Ladouceur agreed and sought an ordinance leveling the playing filed. Wilson spoke in favor of the ordinance on Monday.
The owner-occupied provision of the proposed ordinance held the spotlight for most of the meeting. Landlords questioned if this meant they couldn’t leave the premises to go shopping and would this apply if they resided just a short drive away. Strictly interpreting the ordinance, City Planner Tom Kravitz said owner-occupied meant the landlord would have to be on the premises.
Jack Kessler, Trustee/Owner of the historic Governor William Greene Farm at 777 Love Lane, at the corner of Love Lane and Division Street, which was originally built in 1680 by Samuel Gordon, Jr., the son of the founder of the City of Warwick, questioned if the provision would inhibit efforts to rent the property to people looking to stay in such a historic house.
The house is listed in the RI Historical Commission’s inventory for Warwick as “one of Rhode Island‘s most important historical and architectural landmarks“.
The council learned of devices used to alert landlords of faulty appliances, power outages and how guests are provided numbers to rapidly contract their hosts.
“We can handle any issue before the neighbors are aware,” said one landlord who added that over the last five years he had hosted 2,000 guests with “zero complaints” from neighbors. He said the ordinance “unfairly targets short term landlords.”
“We’re small business owners,” said Dan Saffer, who called himself professional real estate person who has overseen 400 housing units. He said the landlords should be part of the solution and called for the creation of a committee that could work together.
Danelle Debye, a nurse who owns a duplex, provided some statistics. She said the city has more than 80,000 residents and more than 35,000 households. Of those, she said only 73 offer short term rentals. She compared this to Newport with 10,000 households with 8 percent of them being short terms rentals.
“Warwick has an owner occupancy rate of 70 percent compared to Newport at 40 percent. The high owner occupancy rate of Warwick supports that Warwick is composed of mostly families and long term residents and is not a tourist attraction like Newport. Most of my guests who have visited Warwick are not tourists, but travelers returning home to visit loved ones, meet new grandchildren, attend memorial services, and reconnect with old friends. Because most of my travelers have called Warwick home at one point in their life, they are looking for that when they visit. They are looking for a space where they can prepare a meal for, break bread and catch up with those that they love.”
Saffer called on the council not to act Monday night. “Don’t shut us off.”
The council also got a sampling of the positive review guests gave Warwick and their hosts.
As the public hearing closed McAllister called on council members to offer their input. There was consensus that the owner occupied provision needed revision, but Ladouceur made it clear short term rentals are businesses and businesses are controlled.
“If you are going to be a business then you have to play by the rules.”