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Opinion: Council must strike balance with Airbnb regulations

Truth Be Told

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“Airbnb vs. hotel?”

A friend recently asked this question on Facebook. The post had a dozen recommendations within an hour. The consensus was overwhelmingly Airbnb.

I was one who piped up for the majority.

A quick check of my Airbnb travel history reveals five stays in the past six months, three on the same trip to the Pacific Northwest. I really love Airbnb.

Springfield city code currently bans these short-term rentals. That certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Quite the opposite.

In 2018, Springfield Business Journal reported Greene County Airbnb hosts grossed $1.4 million and welcomed 15,800 guests. A search of Springfield, Missouri, on Airbnb.com shows 265 homes available in town.

The debate over regulating short-term rentals is happening around the country, including right in our community. City Council is expected to vote Jan. 28 on a bill finally regulating the industry.

Los Angeles was the last major city to pass guidelines for these types of rentals. Its City Council unanimously adopted strict rules for hosts on Airbnb, Vacation Rental by Owner and others in December 2018. The law, which goes into effect in July, restricts hosts to only provide rentals in their primary residences, not second homes or rental properties. It also caps the number of days homes and rooms can be rented, unless hosts pay extra fines and receive an exception, up to 120 days a year, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times. Hosts must register with the city and pay lodging taxes.

The goal was to stop homes from acting like hotels and to address the housing crisis in L.A.

Springfield is not facing the same tourism demand or crisis, but it’s wise of City Council to put regulations in place before problems arise.

A substitute bill that has received recommendation by Springfield’s Planning and Zoning Commission allows for unlimited rentals for primary residences, aka Type 1 short-term rentals. Type 2 properties are a single-family home or townhouse that are rented for 30 days or fewer. In the proposal, these properties would be subject to a density limit and allow for a grace period of 30 days for implementation of the density rule, as well as require approval from 55 percent of adjacent property owners.

Councilman Richard Ollis has said the recently passed ordinance in Kansas City is considered a model. That’s at least one place we saw this 55 percent rule.

The regulations of this burgeoning industry must strike the right balance of fostering entrepreneurship and forward-thinking in tourism, while addressing concerns of residents and competing hoteliers.

We must enact regulations that don’t deter people from offering Airbnb, especially in our city’s hot neighborhoods like Phelps Grove, Rountree, Galloway Village, downtown and Commercial Street.

Try staying in the same city in a hotel, and then in a resident’s carriage house on their property. You get such a different feel. Airbnb provides a great way to live like a local and connect with the heart of the city, as many Airbnbs come with a built-in tour guide in the home’s owner. And a bonus: It can be cheaper, especially for families who need more than one bed. Springfield is still in the midst of crafting and branding its identity. This has been on the mind of many in economic development.

Identity must be at the forefront of the minds of those changing city code. Certainly, making Airbnb and others legal is the baseline. Now, let’s make sure regulations don’t unnecessarily deter those who already provide this service.

Maybe that balance has been struck with this substitute bill and its amendments, but there have been some strong dissenting opinions during Planning and Zoning’s 5-3 vote sent to council. Cities like Kansas City and Los Angeles debated regulations of this industry for years. While I hope we’re not struck in that long of a saga, why pass regulations that aren’t ready?

I share P&Z Commissioner Britton Jobe’s concerns regarding the required business licenses for Type 1 properties and required majority approval of neighbors for Type 2 properties. He’s expressed frustration that residents’ concerns don’t connect with the regulations proposed to council.

It would be a mistake to model our regulations after other cities, while ignoring the issues we face in our own town.

As a lover of Airbnb and the opportunities it affords to connect with the heart of a city, I hope Springfield finds that balance with the city code.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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