City Council pauses on new rules for short-term rentals and considers more sweeping changes

The Pittsburgh City Council has begun discussions on a bill that would require owners of short-term rental properties to obtain a license from the city in order to operate. But questions about how to improve the legislation took up most of the meeting – and a day after deciding to fast-track action on the bill, the council postponed it for three weeks.

The bill was tabled on Tuesday after a fatal mass shooting at a party at a short-term rental building on the North Side.

And on Wednesday, Councilman Bruce Kraus raised a series of grievances with Airbnb, the company that handles booking the North Side rental. Among his concerns: The difficulty of contacting Airbnb if there were issues with a property he listed.

Kraus said his office often receives complaints about short-term rentals, including noise violations, waste management, overcrowding or nighttime activities. He and a staffer in his office said the bill should require short-term rentals to have a local agent to respond to city inquiries and complaints.

“Airbnb does not provide any additional services, any additional liaisons that other companies we work with,” said Bob Charland, chief of staff at Kraus. “So it’s really on the owner, who often isn’t a local agent, who is often hidden behind [a corporate identity]not even in the city of Pittsburgh to help us out here.”

“The onus is on you to prove that this property is an Airbnb,” Charland said. “They make you create an account and try to rent the same property to prove the property is an Airbnb.”

Booking an Airbnb requires an account to view properties, and a tenant doesn’t receive an address until they’ve been booked and paid for.

The current council bill would solve this problem by requiring short-term rental properties to be registered directly with the city. But Kraus said he would like to do more to regulate the market.

He and Daniel Lavelle both cited a prescription in Philadelphia, which requires that a short-term rental property be part of the owner’s principal residence. Otherwise, the owner would be required to obtain a rental license that identifies the use of the property as a hotel.

Kraus said such a move would “solve a bunch of problems,” and Lavelle said it would be in the spirit of Airbnb’s original goal.

“Airbnbs was initially like, ‘I have a second floor of a house and I rent out the second floor,’ or even some people may have extra space in the back yard,” he said. “Or if you go on vacation for a few weeks and rent out your house.”

But councilors said rental properties were now often used strictly to generate rental income by landlords who lived elsewhere.

The bill limits stays to a maximum of 15 days, which worries councilor Anthony Coghill, as some people rent Airbnbs for longer stays. Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said future revisions to the bill could fix that, but she didn’t guarantee they would change it.

But other changes will also likely be considered.

Kail-Smith said officials are also looking into whether they can offer incentives to “good” landowners.

Councilor Bobby Wilson said he wants the legislation to include a requirement that short-term rental properties must be marked as such with a sticker or QR code. He also suggested landlords could allow police to enter properties if they think there is a problem.

The council ultimately held the bill up for three weeks for officials to study and propose changes to the legislation. It came after the council voted on Tuesday to waive a rule that would normally delay consideration of a bill for a week after its introduction.

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