WARWICK, RI — The Warwick City Council continued debate on short-term rentals popularized by Airbnb into the New Year on Monday.
“I think if you are going to regulate Airbnbs, which is fine, you need to enforce it,” said Cindy Wilson-Fera, who has been arguing for equitable treatment of Airbnbs since 2017, when she complained that then-Mayor Scott Avedisian’s office sent her a letter demanding she make renovations to her home Airbnb site to meet city regulations on small hospitality businesses about three years earlier. She spent two years and $2,000 to meet the requirements, then noted about 20 new Airbnb locations were not held to the same standard.
“Someone mentioned last week, ‘Do I have to dig up my yard for a driveway?’ Well, yeah, because that’s what I did,” Wilson-Fera said during the public comment segment of Monday night’s meeting. “I dug up my yard to make a driveway so it didn’t interfere with my neighbors.”
She asked if the city would reimburse her for the $2,000 she spent to meet the existing city code at the time.
Matthew Patty said the proposed changes to the short-term rental ordinance has multiple flaws. One of those, he said, was based on an assumption of owner-occupied rentals. Also, he said, short-term leasing and renting in Warwick encourages travel and tourism in the City, and encourages people not to skip over Warwick on their way to Providence or South County.
“There’s no Ocean House of Warwick, for example, so, it’s actually good for the community planning, to have responsibly maintained properties. The idea that an owner-occupied structure is more professionally represented than un-owner-occupied structure is just based on theory, its very flawed theory. In fact, it would be more likely to have an unprofessional situation, managed that way. Somebody renting a bedroom out in their house is not more professional than something that is managed by a professional landlord,” Patty said.
“There is no longer language in this ordinance pertaining to owner-occupied,” said Councilman Ed Ladouceur, sponsor of the ordinance.
Warwick City Solicitor Bill Walsh confirmed during a review of the amendment that the prohibition against non-owner-occupied short term rentals had been eliminated from the ordinance.
Other changes included allowing representatives who are not the property owner to fulfill duties usually reserved for the owner, and limiting the maximum capacity per bedroom to two people. The updated ordinance also removes the blanket requirement that there be one more parking space than number of bedrooms used, though that is reserved as a discretionary requirement of the building inspector.
“The language is a lot neater. It clarifies a lot of the concerns, the ambiguity,” said Rix, noting he would support the changes.
“I think it needs more tweaks,” said Councilman William Foley.
When the issue was opened to the public, Wilson-Fera asked Ladouceur what part of the city ordinance she had been held to years ago, if the one being debated was not in effect.
“There is no doubt that you were singled out. No doubt. Because you were the only one, back in the day,” Ladouceur said.
Patty made additional comments, taking issue with the parking portion of the amended ordinance. “It might make more sense to tie it to the actual number of cars that are allowed to be there,” he said. Or, he said, it could be tied the the number of units.
“I think this amendment is a step back from what we need to be thinking about in protecting our most vulnerable citizens in Warwick,” said Jeremy Lagnell. He said the original ordinance is no different from building codes or other regulations put in place to protect neighbors from unsafe homes.
“So I think the argument of this being some kind of encroachment on property rights or individual rights is a bit of a red herring,” he said. He also referenced a 2019 Economic Policy Institute analysis showed the economic costs of Airbnbs outweighed the benefits for communities, he said.
That report, “The economic costs and benefits of Airbnb,” states, Airbnb rentals increase local housing costs, which already exact a steep price on owners and renters. “This rising cost of housing has become a major economic stress for many American households. Anything that threatens to exacerbate this stress should face close scrutiny. A reasonable reading of the available evidence suggests that the costs imposed on renters’ budgets by Airbnb expansion substantially exceed the benefits to travelers,” according to the report.
“A recent study from the Wharton School found that, quote, “While the total supply of housing is not affected by the entry of Airbnb, Airbnb rentals increase the supply of short-term rental units and decrease the supply of long term rental units.” He said the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Melon confirmed those findings.
“These are business schools. These are highly-rated business schools. That have done extensive modeling and economic analysis. So the question for me is not whether the Airbnb model should be regulated. It’s obvious that it should be. The more difficult reality is that Airbnb has evolved beyond its original model, from allowing folks to rent out an unused bedroom or a remodeled basement to earn extra income, to investors purchasing properties to convert into short-term rentals, driving up the cost of living for families on the margins while also increasing pressure on a housing market already woefully short on supply.”
Over the years at City Council meetings, “A common and recurring theme is about the cost of living and its impact on low-income families, disabled veterans, and seniors on fixed incomes, folks who are directly impacted when access to long-term rentals become scarce, and when the cost of living is artificially raised by these kinds of economic activities,” he said.
Lagnell said he agrees that the ordinance needs more work, although likely not in the areas many of the others speaking intended. “And I think we also need to ask ourselves some ethical and moral questions,” and, he said, the Council also needs to expand the debate to include people outside those with a financial investment in the Airbnb model.
Following a successful amendment proposed by Councilman Sinapi to place the discretion for requiring extra parking in the hands of the Building Department, with no action required unless the department requires it, the Council voted unanimously to hold further discussion on the ordinance until the second meeting in January.
In an email message to residents, McAllister noted the meeting was itself a continuation of a public hearing the previous month that saw three hours of testimony. Lacouceur’s amendments incorporated a number of suggestions discussed at that public hearing, including eliminating the owner occupied requirement.
“There has been a lot of interest in this topic and the council continues to take public input and fine tune this ordinance. Therefore, this process will continue next month where once again there will be an opportunity for public comment and additional amendments to be made and voted on.
“In my opinion, this process has been a great example of how representative government should work. There has been hours of public input and debate and the council is taking its time working with the administration and the residents to try to find a compromise to ensure all stakeholders have been heard and had their concerns addressed,” McAllister said.
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