Landlords seek to change short-term rental ordinance
By JOHN HOWELL
With the first passage of an ordinance that was separated and transformed in a few meetings, the city council moved closer to regulating short-term rentals and Airbnbs on Wednesday night.
“We’re so close,” William Gagner told the council, raising his thumb and index finger with enough room to slide in a cellphone. Gagner, who operates an Airbnb on Pawtuxet’s Warwick father and seven short-term rentals on the Cranston side of the village, has become the spokesperson for a loosely organized group of 26 Airbnb operators, the Warwick Landlords Association. He said 71 Warwick Airbnbs are registered with the state.
Although Gagner’s representation suggests little needs to be done to propose the legislation City Council Speaker Steve McAllister will serve as a “role model” for the state, the issues raised are more than just changing a few commas and to add a few words. .
It really wasn’t made clear Wednesday night, although progress was made with a series of amendments introduced by Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi.
“Work with us and we will get there,” Gagner assured the board.
After about an hour of discussion, mostly among council members, about what constitutes a bedroom (could any room with 70 square feet of living space like a kitchen and bathroom be a bedroom?) , With some feedback from the owners, Ward 3 Councilor Timothy Howe introduced a second set of amendments. Before even addressing the amendments, which were released to council members and the public, council members wondered how it would work given Sinapi’s amendments.
William Walsh, the counsel for the council, advised the council to vote on the Sinapi Amendments first and then consider and vote on the Howe Amendments which might end up being Amendments Amendments. Before the process could begin, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis called for a vote on Sinapi’s amending ordinance, which passed unanimously. McAllister asked if the council would get a second bite of the apple, which Walsh said would be the case when it comes to a second pass. Howe waived changing the order, allowing McAllister to move on to the next item on the agenda.
Some of the owners who were willing to tackle the modifications were taken by surprise. “They silenced us all,” said Angela Stamoulos, one of those who gathered outside the rooms to sort out their next step.
“[We were] deliberately left out. We didn’t have the same amount of time,” Gagner told the group. Asked about the problem with the ordinance that McAllister presents as a model, Gagner called “unconstitutional” the measure’s provision calling on owners to keep records of their boarders, including copies of driver’s licenses and car registrations. .
“Only authorized officials can obtain such information,” he said. During a call Sunday, Gagner pointed out, “were bound by privacy laws and the 4th Amendment cannot release this information.” He says the order must specify that a short-term rental is “not a change in use of a single-family home.” He chafes at the provision requiring twice-yearly building inspections for short-term rentals, noting that an initial inspection is appropriate, but more frequent inspections “simply isn’t fair”.
Gagner was not ready to share the full list of provisions the group considers onerous and subject to interpretation. Yet the ordinance has changed significantly since it was introduced by Ward 5 Councilor Ed Ladouceur, who has worked on it for the past six months. He first became interested in the issue of short-term rentals six years ago when Cindy Wilson, a constituent who operates an Airbnb in Warwick Cove, complained of being singled out by the service of building to meet overly stringent code requirements that cost thousands of dollars while other Airbnb operators were not named.
In the six years he operated an Airbnb on Spring Green Street in Pawtuxet, Gagner said he hosted more than 2,000 guests. He said short-term rentals have become a way for people to secure their most important investment of their lives: their home. It’s a business and a way to support the community, he stressed.
Since last Wednesday’s council meeting, Gagner said he has spoken with some council members and hopes to meet with city building official Alfred DeCorte to go over the points of the ordinance at the First passage. Given the number of members of the works council, he said he sought to facilitate their work by presenting revisions for their consideration. He believes it’s time to come up with a workable order as the council considers the second pass next month.
“We want it done right and not rush this thing because they are [the council] tired,” he said.
Among the requirements of the amended order granted in the first pass are: short-term tenants register with the city and pay an annual fee of $250 per dwelling unit; that the owner of a short-term rental or his representative has a principal residence within 50 miles of the short-term rental property and that the maximum occupancy of a unit is two people per bedroom.
Owners seek clarification on the section dealing with penalties for violations and revocation of permits. Violations of the ordinance are subject to a maximum fine of $500 per day for each violation and subsequent violation. The owners believe that certain provisions of the order are subject to interpretation and that the fine can be exercised subjectively.
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