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Voters In Oregon Coast Town To Weigh In On Vacation Rental Limits

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Gearhart, Oregon, is the first Pacific Northwest city where regulation of vacation rentals is going to a vote of the people. Yard signs for and against the referendum proliferate across the small beach town.

From Ashland to Whistler, Northwest cities large and small are grappling with whether and how to regulate short term rentals of accommodations. Concern about rowdy behavior or preserving housing stock for workers motivates regulation.

In the small town of Gearhart, on the Oregon Coast, rental property owners have forced an unusual referendum on to the November ballot. It would repeal and replace restrictive rules passed by the city council.

Gearhart homeowner Joy Sigler decided a year ago to renovate her son's bedroom and the attached bathroom, now that the young man is off to college. ?

"It's a very cozy little room," Sigler said as she opened a sliding door to reveal a snug space decorated in coordinated shades of white, grey and black.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Gearhart businesswoman Joy Sigler tidies up a renovated room that she wants to list as a rental on Airbnb, but is blocked from doing so by city law.

Sigler figured she could make some extra cash renting it out on Airbnb, the online home sharing website.

"We spent a considerable amount of money making it very beautiful, with beautiful tiling,” Sigler said. “It meets all the qualifications for safety." ?

It looks like a nice place, but it’s not listed for rent on any online rental platform. ?

"The city has created an ordinance that has made my ability to offer that illegal,” Sigler said.

‘A reaction was inevitable’

Sigler is blocked by new city rules that effectively capped short term rentals in the beach town. Those limits came about because residents like Bill Berg were alarmed by the proliferation of vacation rentals made possible by websites like Airbnb, Vacasa and VRBO.

Berg joined crowds who pressed the planning commission and then the city council for tight restrictions to preserve the town's residential character.

"Vacation rental agencies flooded us with postcards inviting us to turn our homes over to them. Think of all the money we could make by renting out our houses on a weekend basis,” Berg said. “It was just incredible. So a reaction was inevitable."

Eighty-four property owners obtained short-term rental permits during a one-time, 60-day application window last fall, which the mayor said might reopen someday. ?

"We would like to revisit this law every year," Mayor Matt Brown said. ?

Property owners who wish to rent a dwelling to a long-term tenant—for more than 30 days—are not restricted. Gearhart has lots of second homes that are empty part of the year.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
A sizable percentage of the housing stock in Gearhart is second homes of families living in the I-5 corridor.

Berg also raises an issue that comes up in almost every place that debates this—the shortage of housing for full-time residents.

"The growth of the vacation rentals, the transient rentals, the elimination of homes that might have been available for long-term rentals is very frustrating to the employers of this county,” Berg said.

Forcing a referendum

Last fall, the Gearhart City Council unanimously passed rules for vacation rentals. In addition to the limit on permits, the rules include occupancy caps, requirements for off street parking, inspections and having someone available to respond to problems 24 hours per day.  ?

Opponents subsequently challenged Gearhart's approach, but the rules were upheld by a state appeals board that deals with land use.

Frustrated property owner Joy Sigler then helped gather the necessary voter signatures to force a referendum on this November’s ballot.

"The city has taken away my right to have somebody in my home while I'm in it!” Sigler said. “They have made their ordinance so restrictive that no part of your home shall be used for short term lodging. That is so severe.”

A "yes" vote on the referendum would replace the city's vacation rental regulations with less restrictive rules. The biggest differences are that there would be no cap on the number of vacation rentals, parking and unit occupancy limits would be a little more generous and septic system capacity inspections not required of other homes would be eliminated. 

?Opposition campaign manager Jeanne Mark pulled no punches in describing what she thinks could happen to Gearhart if the repeal and replace measure passes. ?

"Investment entities can easily come in and scoop up whole blocks, whole blocks, she said. “And then all of a sudden, where is the fabric of your community? It's almost like cancer. Cancer feeds on its host and then ends up killing it."

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Concern about short-term rentals in Gearhart unites, from left, Mami Kanzaki, Lisa Cerveny, Bill Berg, Betty Smith and Jeanne Mark.

Gearhart voter Amanda Laird said the fall campaign struck her as "a little extreme" on both sides. In an interview Thursday, she said she wished the city's regulatory approach had more options. ?

"Why couldn't the city have allowed a percentage cap? Or a hard cap, with a wait list for when rentals leave so someone new can get in,” Laird said. “That would be more reasonable." 

?Laird and her husband are renovating their cottage ahead of a possible move to Bend. She said they would eventually like to get a vacation rental permit for their Gearhart home and list it on an online rental platform in order to be able to afford to keep the home in the family. 

Gearhart's population is just over 1,500, so the referendum (Measure 4-188) is mostly being waged with flyers and person to person. The hotel industry and its online rivals such as Airbnb and VRBO are sitting this one out. 

Vote-by-mail ballots on the vacation rental referendum need to be returned by Election Day, November 7. ?

Different cities, different issues

San Francisco is the only other Western U.S. city to hold what there was nicknamed "the Airbnb referendum," a multimillion dollar fight in 2015. But the underlying issue is clearly emerging in more and more places.  ?

In Leavenworth, Washington, the city council this January prohibited the short term rental of entire houses. 

In Bend, the city requires vacation rental owners to give visitors a tip sheet on how to be a respectful neighbor. Portland requires a mandatory safety inspection.

Now a lot of eyes are turning to Seattle, where the mayor and council in fits and starts are trying to prevent conversion of apartments into short term rentals by limiting rental hosts to listing no more than two dwelling units. 

?The Municipal Research and Services Center is a Seattle-based nonprofit that advises cities on policy and legal matters. MRSC Policy Manager Steve Butler said there is no model ordinance to guide cities for how to deal with vacation rentals.

"There's really no one set answer because each community is probably going to have a different set of issues,” he said.

Butler emails city councilors or planners who ask a package of links with about 10 approaches various Western cities have taken. Airbnb has its own "tool chest" for government officials to consider too. ?

"Most people recognize that short term vacation rentals through the internet or otherwise are probably here to stay," Butler said. "They're trying to find ways to address what seems to be an emerging and growing trend."

‘Laws should be clear, fair, and easy to follow’

?In its messaging to policymakers, Airbnb disputes that short-term rentals erode the housing supply for permanent residents. In Portland, it commissioned a report that said many of its room listings fill a distinct niche and would not be available as permanent rental units. 

?“Airbnb helps families earn extra money to help make ends meet while providing an affordable way for people to visit the Northwest,” Airbnb spokeswoman Laura Rillos wrote in an email. “Laws for home sharing should be clear, fair, and easy to follow and registration should be simple and streamlined. We’ve worked with hundreds of governments around the world on common sense regulations that allow families to share their homes, strengthen communities and protect neighborhoods.” ?

Earlier this year, the Idaho Legislature sought middle ground when it passed statewide regulations. The law, which Republican Gov. Butch Otter signed in April, forbids cities or counties in Idaho from banning short-term vacation rentals. But it does allow local governments to regulate them with regard to health, safety and welfare.

Importantly, it also requires municipal zoning ordinances to recognize a short-term rental as a residential use. The new state law also requires collection of state sales and lodging taxes.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.