Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Does Tacoma need to regulate short-term rentals like Airbnb?

Tacoma’s proposed regulations include a business license requirement for those partaking in the burgeoning short-term rental market.
Tacoma’s proposed regulations include a business license requirement for those partaking in the burgeoning short-term rental market. Belleville News-Democrat

Peruse Tacoma’s Airbnb listings — of which there are currently more than 300 — and you’ll find a little bit of everything.

There’s the beach cabin, where $150 per night will get you access to a picturesque water view and “208 stairs (that) divide the cabin from the rest of the world.”

There’s “the PINK house,” where a mere $35 a night will get you into a “beautiful remodeled home” “near UPS, UW Tacoma and trendy Sixth Ave.” Yes, there’s a powder room.

And then there’s the “Purple Palace” and its “cozy and comfortable” Pink Lady room. Of this short-term rental opportunity, the owners promote: “We just bought our first home, a beautiful Victorian located in the Hilltop neighborhood, which is walking distance from downtown shopping, restaurants, parks, bars, theaters and more!”

It’s a brave new world we live in.

It wasn’t long ago that staying in Tacoma meant, for the well off, an upscale night downtown or — for the more economical — a humble night along Hosmer Street in walking distance of one of Tacoma’s finest Burger Kings and the Hustler Hollywood adult novelties store.

But the times have changed. Or, to use the going lingo, the disruptors have disrupted.

It’s amid this backdrop that the City Council has decided to take up the possibility of regulating short-term rentals.

It’s a solid idea.

Still, the decision has some people asking: Why mess with a good thing?

As The News Tribune’s Candice Ruud reported last week, the council is expected to vote in August on a handful of innocuous regulations — described by city planner Stephen Atkinson as “relatively simple and basic.”

As we move forward into our app-based future, the question becomes: How much will short-term rentals impact Tacoma’s rental market, and will even stronger regulations be needed some day?

The proposed regulations include a business license requirement for those partaking in this burgeoning online rental market — ranging in cost from $25 for people who expect to make less than $12,000 a year and $90 for others.

Short-term rentals would be required to be equipped with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, which is kind of a no-brainer. Meanwhile, owners who live on-site would be allowed to rent up to nine guest rooms, while owners who don’t reside at their properties could rent out an entire house — for up to 30 days at a time.

It gets a little trickier, but not much trickier, from there.

As Tacoma senior planner Lihuang Wung told The News Tribune, the city’s main goal in all of this — which is part of the Planning Department’s annual tweaking of the comprehensive plan and land-use code — is to make sure the rentals are safe and don’t disturb the character of the neighborhood.

As part of this admirable — while difficult to quantify — quest, rentals with between three and nine guest rooms would be barred from single-family residential zones, while entire homes for rent, and rentals with fewer than three guest rooms, would be allowed in all zoning districts except for industrial.

These modest regulations are a sensible start. As with any new business, the city has an obligation to make sure everyone involved is protected.

But as we move forward into our app-based future, the question becomes: How much will short-term rentals affect Tacoma’s rental market, and will even stronger regulations be needed some day?

While in a place like Tacoma — which, let’s be clear, isn’t exactly in the same strata as San Francisco or Seattle — entertaining such debates can seem a bit premature, it’s still worth pondering the impact short-term rentals available via online platforms such as Airbnb are having in other places.

If for no other reason than to make sure Tacoma isn’t blindsided should a short-term rental explosion ever reach our humble shores.

What does such an explosion look like? As Gene Balk of The Seattle Times detailed last month, an analysis in April found Seattle had 2,817 listings on Airbnb, and of those, 1,003 — or 36 percent — were listed by hosts who did not reside there.

In other words, those 1,003 properties were locations that could be housing local renters instead of Airbnb drop-ins — in the eyes of critics, worsening the city’s existing rental crunch.

The analysis also found that, in April, Seattle had 27 hosts lording over six or more Airbnb properties, and an overall growth of 31 percent of whole units listed on Airnbnb between September 2015 and April 2016.

There are two sides of every coin, of course. For its part, Airbnb argues that it helped create $180 million in economic activity in Seattle last year, and helped more than 350 hosts avoid eviction or foreclosure thanks to the extra income they were able to generate.

Seattle is weighing short-term rental regulations that go much further than anything Tacoma is mulling. That’s as it should be. Again, comparing the current short-term rental market in Tacoma to Seattle’s doesn’t make sense.

But what’s happening elsewhere in the world of Airbnb does bear watching.

Because sometimes, too much of a good thing turns sour quickly.

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