To Airbnb Or Not To Airbnb, That Is The Question

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By Zach Sparks

It sounds like the plot of a slapstick comedy film — a group of people rent a home for the weekend and invite more than 100 guests to a party that gets so rowdy that police are called three times, and when the cruisers arrive, the partiers all rush to their cars and create a bottleneck at a spot they mistake for the community exit.

Except this was not a fictional scenario and the Severna Park neighbors did not laugh when they heard the raucous noise and saw cars speeding through the Kensington community on July 4, 2018.

That story was relayed to the Greater Severna Park Council, with some people advocating regulations on sites like HomeAway, VRBO, FlipKey and the most popular, Airbnb, which all allow people to rent out their property on a short-term basis.

That business has become lucrative for some homeowners. According to data released in January by Airbnb, Anne Arundel County had 48,700 arrivals that paid a collective $7.8 million to hosts during 2018. Of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, only Baltimore City ($14.9 million), Montgomery County ($11.3 million) and Prince George’s County ($9.4 million) had more. The next closest, Garrett County, accounted for $2 million.

Matt Hetrick lists four properties on Airbnb including a loft over Main Street in Annapolis that was booked 351 times between June 2015 and January 2019. He would welcome fair regulations and zoning discussions, but he thinks laws limiting the frequency of rentals in Anne Arundel County would be detrimental.

“I think if someone is upset about their neighbor or a party, that’s not the best way to do it,” Hetrick said. “I find it counter to the spirit of entrepreneurship and to the idea of introducing guests to our county and our city. The people are vibrant and they come from all over the country. They’re coming for a wedding or to visit the Naval Academy. There is a longstanding tradition of renting out homes during Commissioning Week.”

Timothy Mewmaw uses Airbnb to list a detached bedroom in Arnold. Since April 2017, he’s hosted 185 times. Both he and Hetrick agreed that homeowners should take responsibility for setting house rules, and the site’s rating system alerts users about noncompliant guests and bad hosts.

“I fail to see how restrictions would address someone being a rambunctious neighbor, but I agree it is a concern,” Mewmaw said. “Renters should follow the same guidelines for parking, for noise ordinance, for all that stuff.”

Will Hicks, an Arnold property owner, said, “It’s up to the owner to police it. My house rules are no parties or events.”

Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City have each debated laws regulating short-term rentals. Councilmember Hans Riemer sponsored the Montgomery County bill, which took effect in July 2018.

“We had a fair amount of residents who were using Airbnb … buying up property and turning them into full-time hotels,” he said. “Homes are for housing and we want to keep it that way.”

The accepted Montgomery County legislation limits homeowners to short-term rentals of 120 days per year if they do not reside in the home. It also limits the number of guests to six per listing and two adults per room. Homeowners must also apply for $150 licenses and renew them each year.

“You hear from people saying, ‘I think it’s terrible. It’s my property and I should be able to do what I want with it,’” Riemer said. “But I think there’s quite a wide middle ground that allows people to use it in a targeted way.”

But each jurisdiction has different needs, noted Anne Arundel County District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, who has discussed both sides of the issue with her constituents.

“A situation like this is going to impact the entire county, so it’s really important to be proactive and try to estimate the unintended consequences and look at all sides,” Fiedler said.

Fiedler is still welcoming input on the issue and has not yet drafted any legislation.

A bill at the state level failed to get out of committee last year, and the only returning sponsor, Brian Feldman from Montgomery County, has no plans to reintroduce it, according to his office.

Nationwide, Indiana was the only state to pass short-term rental regulations in 2018, although 15 other states considered changes, according to the Pew Research Center. Nebraska’s governor vetoed a bill.

Each Maryland jurisdiction will continue regulating the short-term rental industry on its own.

Prince George’s County legislation, which will take effect in October 2019, was similar to the Montgomery County law in that it requires hosts to apply for a county license and it allows only eight guests.

In December, after facing pressure from representatives in the hotel industry, the Baltimore City Council voted to impose a 9.5 percent tax on guests who use short-term rentals.

Pasadena resident Carol Shepard thinks that rate is too high for Anne Arundel. “You’re there for a comfortable stay in someone’s home,” she said. “I don’t do this for business – although it’s a nice business – I do it to share my home.”

Mewmaw emphasized that most of his guests are blue-collar workers and not necessarily the corporate clientele that stay in hotels.

“A difference of $4 to $5 a night makes a big difference on what room gets booked,” Mewmaw said. “Granted, you can say the overall rate will go up for everyone. My sense is that it will eliminate more hosts.

“I think the main result of increased legislation, taxes and red tape is that less homeowners and more businesses will take over small rentals like this,” he said. “Eventually, it'll be one or two corporations controlling an army of cleaners and lower-level managers to do all of it.”

Most homeowners are in favor of reasonable guidelines. “Airbnb doesn’t come to my house to make sure it’s fireproof and it’s safe,” Shepard said.

All the homeowners who contributed to this article expressed hesitation over potential laws. Asking for anonymity because of a past incident with stalking, an Arnold host said most of her guests visit from out of state and that providing them a place to stay is more important than making money.

“We host because we have the privilege of supporting local midshipmen when their families visit,” she said. “We have the pleasure of giving a soft place to land at the end of a long day at a local conference. We enjoy opening our doors to the myriads of people who come to cheer on their team when the Navy stadium hosts home games. It’s personal. It’s supportive. It’s fostering relationships and friendships.”

For Kensington and other communities, a few restrictions would go a long way. Allison Senical, a Kensington resident, would support eliminating one-night stays and encouraging sites to book rentals of only one week or longer.

“It’s not keeping in with the character of the community,” she said. “Some of the renters don’t respect our parking rules. We still see a lot of turnover, a lot of cars lining up and garbage that is left behind.”

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