Towns Struggle To Regulate Airbnb
When David Packer worried he would lose his family home on Squantz Pond to rising property taxes, he decided to follow the path his father had in the 1960s and 70s — renting it to guests.
His method, Airbnb’s online rental service, was of course different than his father’s had been, Packer said, but the economic benefit proved to be largely the same.
“For me, as it has for others who list their property, (Airbnb) has been an economic life preserver allowing us to keep our home,” Packer said, adding that he’s even earned enough to make overdue improvements to his property. “As for the guests, they’re spending money right here in New Fairfield at our stores and restaurants...and they’re paying a 15 percent tax to the state of Connecticut for their stay.”
He and other Airbnb hosts, including “Sweet Dotti’s Cottage” owner Rob White, contended in a public hearing last week that the website has provided responsible guests to stay in their homes, all while creating an added source of income.
But others in the crowd told horror stories of other Airbnb hosts squeezing large groups into small houses by counting couches, air mattresses and even hammocks as beds.
The arguments echo an ongoing debate around the country as states and municipalities take different approaches to ensuring the online rental system doesn’t disturb neighborhoods, the housing market or the hospitality industry.
Some, like New York City, have created a 30-day minimum for rentals, while others limit the times per year owners can rent or require a registry for hosts. In Connecticut, the state legislature has not yet taken action on the rentals, except to become one of the states that partners with Airbnb to collect the 15 percent lodging tax from renters.
The hearing in New Fairfield, the first step in its efforts to regulate the rentals, is the first time the debate has reached the small town. Zoning officials scheduled it after at least a dozen Airbnb properties popped up this year, mostly around the lake.
The lakeside residents seemed to agree that some sort of regulation or enforcement is necessary to protect neighborhoods from ”absentee owners.”
Neighbors said in those cases renters have left behind trash, created parking hazards, strained septic systems, used neighbors’ docks and at one home, are going to the bathroom outside.
But owners like White and Packer, and other supportive residents, claim that the irresponsible hosts shouldn’t mean the town should shut down all Airbnbs, which can help homeowners, the town’s economy and provide hospitality options.
“We’ve had now more than 100 rentals in three years and we’ve had almost no problems at all,” White said.
Local laws back to top
One of the first steps for New Fairfield officials will be exploring how other Connecticut towns have dealt with the issue. Because the state hasn’t come down on either side of the debate, towns and cities can take different approaches with how to regulate the rentals locally.
At least in New Haven and Stamford, the top two spots in Connecticut for Airbnb according to the company’s data, officials have already begun looking at how to regulate the rentals. Both cities started examining their options at different times last year, when, as in New Fairfield, residents complained of homes that began operating with hotel-like turnover.
But for the Danbury area, it seems the issue hasn’t come to the forefront in other towns the way it has for New Fairfield.
“I know they’re in town, I’ve heard of them, but I think they’re relatively low-key,” said George Benson, Newtown’s director of planning. “I haven’t had any complaints about them in town that I know of...It’s something we eventually (will have to address).”
Officials in Brookfield and Bridgewater also said there are no specific Airbnb regulations on the books.
But Benson added that for Newtown at least, the town likely won’t have to add anything new to its regulations to shut down problematic Airbnbs should the issue pop up. The short-term rental isn’t specifically listed in the regulations, but because it isn’t on the list of what residents can do, it means it’s not allowed.
This approach is similar to how Ridgefield handled things when several Airbnbs created problems in town about four years ago. Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli said it wasn’t difficult to address the issue because bed and breakfasts, though not specifically Airbnbs, are already regulated in the zoning laws.
“To us, Airbnb is just a method of advertising,” Baldelli said. “If you are going to rent a room in your home to someone on a transient-type basis for compensation, you’re a bed and breakfast, whether you do it through Airbnb, through your newspaper, or any other method.”
The short-term rentals were creating similar problems for neighbors in Ridgefield as they were in New Fairfield, Baldelli said, though on a smaller scale, likely because Ridgefield isn’t a lakeside vacation community. One of the most problematic situations, though, was near one of the town’s lakes, where renters were throwing “frat-like” parties at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, he said.
Officials shut down the Airbnbs, but offered each of the hosts the option of applying for a special permit, as is required for bed and breakfasts to run the rentals legally, Baldelli said. So far, no former Airbnb hosts have gone through with process and to his knowledge there aren’t any operating in town, he added.
There have been some residents, though, that have recently expressed interest in opening a bed and breakfast due to a Planning and Zoning Commission effort to increase hospitality options.
In New Fairfield, zoning officials said they will need to balance any regulations with the town’s tradition of renting lakeside properties.
The commission agreed to begin discussing points brought up at the hearing at next month’s meeting. So far, ideas brought up by residents include requiring properties to register, creating a contact list for hosts, adding guidelines to zoning rules or passing regulations through a town ordinance.
“We have made no decisions for or against,” Zoning Chair John Moran said. “I would anticipate it will probably take us four or five months, maybe less, to come up with a recommendation, or no recommendation. That’s always possible."