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Short-term rental advocates Sarah Vallieu, Darik Eaton, and Candi Canncel.
Short-term rental advocates Sarah Vallieu, Darik Eaton, and Candi Canncel at today’s City Council meeting.

A crowd of homeowners, rental site representatives, and residents gathered today at City Hall as Seattle councilmembers proposed a simplified set of regulations designed to prevent property owners from operating Airbnb and Expedia-owned HomeAway rentals like businesses.

At a meeting of the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods, and Finance Committee, councilmembers engaged in a heated discussion that is part of an ongoing debate over issues of housing affordability, sharing economy services, and the role of regulators, as Seattle grapples with a historic, tech-driven population boom.

The initial proposal, championed by Councilmember Tim Burgess and Mayor Ed Murray, said that property owners renting out secondary residences (homes they do not occupy) would not be allowed to book more than 90 total nights per year. The revised regulations do away with this clause, requiring all short-term rental operators to live on the property they list on Airbnb and HomeAway.

These companies — and many of the homeowners that use their sites — are up in arms about the change, which effectively bans short-term rentals in secondary homes.

Sarah Vallieu works for Seattle Oasis Vacation Rentals and told the committee she’s concerned with how the regulations would impact her job.

“To lose this job, this very industry, would be a blow to over 1,000 owners and employees, conservatively, in the city,” she said on Wednesday. “Revenue from rentals and wages paid support families, local businesses, and city services. Please don’t lose sight of this as you legislate this industry.”

But the modified policy approach does contain a limited exception. Property owners that obtained a business license before June 1, 2016, would be allowed to continue renting out one secondary residence for a period of 10 years or when the property is sold (whichever occurs sooner).

Several residents, frustrated by the influx of tourists in their communities, took issue with this 10-year amnesty period.

“We feel exploited and defeated, powerless, unsafe in our homes, sad, angry, and afraid,” said Kate Starbird, a Belltown resident and associate professor at the University of Washington who spoke at the GeekWire Summit last fall. “We feel that the profits from these short-term rentals have literally been squeezed from the lifeblood of our community, from our quality of life. The proposed changes to the regulations which allow amnesty for certain owners, they may be a worst-case scenario for us.”

Shot-term rental advocates line up to speak at a meeting of the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods, and Finance Committee.
Shot-term rental advocates line up to speak at a meeting of the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods, and Finance Committee.

After discussing the initial proposal, the City Council became concerned about cooperation from platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway. Enforcing the 90-day cap in secondary residences would require data from rental sites and the city is not convinced it can rely on the platforms to provide that information.

But Airbnb and HomeAway say prohibiting short-term rentals of secondary properties is not the solution.

“We believe the ban on all secondary homeowners going forward is overly restrictive,” said Cynthia Wong, a representative from Airbnb. “There are many owners here in Seattle that live here for part of the year and that housing would not otherwise be on the long-term market.”

The revised regulations would still require all short-term rental operators to provide liability insurance, a local contact for guests, safety information posted in the home, and a declaration of compliance with safety codes.

In advance of today’s meeting, economic consulting firm EcoNorthwest released a study, commissioned by HomeAway, claiming the vacation rental site’s short-term listings comprise less than 1 percent of Seattle’s housing stock. That doesn’t account for Airbnb listings, but both platforms claim the regulations would not have a meaningful impact on housing affordability.

Councilmember Burgess, on the other hand, said that short-term rentals make up about 12-to-12.5 percent of available housing inventory in Seattle. He stressed that the proposed regulations are far from final and urged the community to continue to engage in a dialogue in the coming months.

“We are going to do this well,” he said. “We’re going to take our time to get it right.”

A copy of the Seattle City Council’s modified policy approach is available here.

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