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Residents line up to speak about the City Council's proposed short-term rental regulations.
Residents line up to speak about the City Council’s proposed short-term rental regulations.

Seattle residents lined up Wednesday morning to speak out about housing affordability and short-term rental regulations at the Seattle City Council chambers, a window-lined section of City Hall overlooking a small tent city on James Street.

Short-term rental operators, business owners, homeless people, and other members of the Seattle community packed in, standing in back and along the sides when the chamber’s 100 or so seats filled. Issues of housing affordability and the tech-driven population boom brought them together.

IMG_1867Many in attendance were part of The Coalition for Seattle Short-Term Rentals, a new group that has emerged as a response to proposed regulations on sites like Airbnb. The coalition claims that short-term rentals comprise about 1 percent of Seattle’s total housing, a number too small to have a meaningful impact on Seattle’s housing market.

The proposed regulations are designed to limit Seattle property owners from using short-term rental sites Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO to operate commercial lodging businesses. Lawmakers are concerned that the lucrative nature of this type of rentals encourages property owners to convert units from long-term housing for residents to short-term housing for travelers.

Councilmember Tim Burgess and Mayor Ed Murray propose new restrictions on rentals that are not used by the owner as a primary residence. In other words, if a property owner doesn’t live on site, the rental would be subject to new regulations. Specifically, property owners would not be allowed to rent the unit for more than 90 nights per year.

Previously: Curbing Airbnb: Property owners react to proposed rules as Seattle struggles with housing affordability

Homeowners renting out a unit that is part of their primary residence (like a spare room or basement mother-in-law) would not face the 90-day cap. They would, however, be required to obtain new permits as part of the regulations.

Sites like Airbnb and HomeAway (which is owned by Bellevue, Wash.’s Expedia) would also be required to obtain a new kind of license with the city. To acquire that permit, the rental platforms would need to turn over some data about short-term rental operators on a quarterly basis.

The proposed regulations have sparked a debate among short-term rental operators, Seattle residents, and members of the tech and business community.

“This is kind of a one-size-fits-none regulation,” Don Mackenzie, a homeowner who rents his second property when his mother isn’t visiting, said at the hearing. “I think it’s going to cause more problems than it solves.”

Several Airbnb owners suggested higher taxes as an alternative to the regulations. Many implored the City Council to reconsider, as the regulations would hamper income they’ve come to rely on.

“Home sharing has become an economic lifeline for people in Seattle,” said Cynthia Wong, a member of Airbnb’s public policy team. “About 11 percent, or 350 hosts, in Seattle are using Airbnb income to prevent themselves from being evicted or saving their homes from foreclosure.”

Wong’s team released new statistics Wednesday, coinciding with the hearing. Airbnb says its community generated $180 million in economic activity in Seattle last year, bringing 198,000 travelers to Seattle.

Councilmember Burgess paused the comment period to note that many of the homeowners speaking, like those renting out units in their primary residences, would be largely unaffected by the proposed regulations.

A handful of attendees did speak out in support of the regulations, claiming short-term rentals negatively impact neighborhoods and add to the housing crunch.

“We’re concerned about the city’s liveability and lack of long-term housing,” said David Katz. “We’re also Airbnb hosts. We’re pleased with the regulations proposed by Councilmember Burgess.”

The City Council’s Affordable Housing, Neighborhood, and Finance Committee will continue to hear feedback from the community before officially proposing legislation in July.

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