Despite a handful of residents renting rooms in their homes for years with minimal impact, the borough government said the practice contradicts its zoning laws, and has to stop.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 14, 2018
In the five years that Chrissy Spallone has owned her Collingswood row home, she’s hosted an Emmy Award winner, a Miss America contestant, college professors, and a handful of people who have relocated nearby after visiting.
AirBnb “super host” is only one of her part-time jobs—Spallone is also a barista, an educator, and the Collingswod Bike Share co-coordinator—but its modest, short-term rentals have helped cover most of her property taxes.
“I bought a home because I was about to turn 30, I had no partner, and I wanted some security instead of paying the same amount in a studio apartment,” Spallone said. “When I learned about AirBnb, I thought we could help each other out.”
Earlier this year, however, Spallone stopped listing her home with the service when Collingswood cited her fellow AirBnber, Suzanne Cloud, for operating an illegal boardinghouse. Cloud challenged the ruling and lost, and Spallone feared similar enforcement.
“I had no idea it was against any ordinance to seek roommates,” Spallone said. “I thought it was seeking roommates to help pay for my expenses while helping them.”
Spallone doesn’t drive a car, so AirBnbing didn’t add vehicle traffic to her block. She rates most of her experiences with guests as “enjoyable to neutral,” and said the site’s host guarantee and vetting process gave her confidence.
“You can only welcome into your home people you feel comfortable sharing your home with you,” Spallone said. “It helps me feel safer in my home when other people are in it; it helps me to keep up and maintain my home when there’s somebody to come home to.”
Although market saturation from nearby Philadelphia has driven rates down since she started hosting, Spallone said the temporary rentals are still an important source of income that she’s now missing.
“I’ve hosted hundreds of guests,” she said. “None of them have caused any problems. All that money’s gone right back into my community.”
Christina McLean said her Collingswood home has been a locally licensed and inspected rental property since 2007.
When she started listing with AirBnb in 2011, it was just another mechanism for finding tenants.
McLean said her most common customers are friends and families of borough residents.
“People with new babies, Thanksgiving guests, people visiting town for weddings; they don’t want to stay in a hotel,” she said.
“Our neighbors are requesting us to help their families stay with us because they don’t have room in their homes,” McLean said.
McLean said renting contributes to the local economy, as she hires landscapers and cleaners to maintain her home for guests, all in keeping a favorable AirBnb guest rating. If the people most making use of her home are the friends and relatives of borough residents, McLean feels that locally, it’s a net benefit.
“I think that AirBnb is a service to the community,” she said. “We’re providing jobs and providing places for our neighbors’ families to stay.”
“The law’s supposed to help us, not to penalize us for trying to make do.”
—Collingswood resident Suzanne Cloud, on renting rooms in her home through AirBnb.com.
Suzanne Cloud thought so, too. She said renting rooms in her house to medical students on six-week residencies was filling a niche in the local economy. The Collingswood zoning board said she was running an illegal boardinghouse. Cloud’s appeal was rejected on the grounds that the board couldn’t find any statute under which to grant her relief.
“They had no laws for a hybrid situation like AirBnb,” she said. “It’s not the same thing as a boardinghouse.”
Without the supplemental income, Cloud said she will be forced to move. She’s still going to rent out her Collingswood home, she just won’t get to live there when it happens.
“I really, really wanted to stay here,” Cloud said. “This is where I married my late husband and raised my children.”
As a decades-long resident, Cloud said she’s helped participate in the rebirth of Collingswood, most recently as the founder of JazzBridge, a music-oriented nonprofit.
But she doesn’t remember those old days with the same trepidation that she said has soured the local government on multi-family dwellings.
“I didn’t witness any horrific duplex living,” Cloud said.
“I was here during that whole thing; I was part of the renaissance. What they depended on here was the sweat equity of creative people, and that’s what I was involved with.
“It’s almost like they’re set in their ways, and they were so affected by whatever that fight was with the duplexes, they refuse to look at any of us who are running AirBnbs as humans with real problems,” she said.
“The law’s supposed to help us, not to penalize us for trying to make do.”
“Would you be okay if every property did that? Because once we change the law, everybody can do it.”
—Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, on changing local zoning law to allow AirBnb.com rentals.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said he’s sympathetic to the plights of AirBnbers, but thinks changing the local zoning law to accommodate them does more harm than good for the community at large.
“The question I keep asking is, ‘How is a change that would allow rental of rooms good for the residential neighborhood?” Maley said.
“When we adopt a zoning law, it applies to everybody,” he said. “One of the rules I always follow whenever stuff comes up is, ‘Would you be okay if every property did that?’ Because once we change the law, everybody can do it.”
Boardinghouses are regulated under state authority; Maley said a zoning law change likely wouldn’t give the borough the same degree of control over AirBnb rentals. He said Collingswood residents expect residential homes to be single-family-occupied, arguing that even short-term rentals have less frequent turnover than do AirBnbs.
The mayor also cited a laundry list of technical concerns, from parking, to fire safety, to potential court battles, that he said would make AirBnb licensing difficult. Maley also admitted to having “the echoes in my head” of the multi-tenant dwellings of 1990s Collingswood, which his government addressed by incentivizing their conversion into single-family homes.
“I’m totally tainted by my experience of the last 25 to 30 years,” Maley said. “When I started this, our joke was that every block had a problem duplex. The cars, the people in and out changed the fabric of that neighborhood.
“For me, it’s not enough of a plus that people in the house can make the money,” Maley said. “That doesn’t balance it for me.
“I feel bad with the people I’m dealing with because we know them,” he said. “They’re good people, I’m sure they’re running great places.
“To me, it’s not worth that risk.”
Collingswood Commissioner Joan Leonard said AirBnb is more appropriate for a resort town in which it can be the focus of local industry with more dedicated inspections, licensing, and enforcement. Like Maley, she thinks AirBnb takes the power out of the hands of local governments to regulate who’s in town.
“This snuck up on us, and we worked really long to reduce overcrowding in single-family neighborhoods, to try to help triplexes and duplexes convert to what they were meant to be,” Leonard said.
“I know that people using AirBnb appreciate coming into neighborhoods, but I don’t know that the neighbors and the neighborhoods around it appreciate it,” she said.
Leonard said she thinks the service compromises “consistency in the neighborhood; that you feel secure knowing who’s living there and whose car’s pulling in and out of the driveway.”
She said she’d be more inclined to support AirBnb at properties that can support additional onsite parking, or that could function as a true bed-and-breakfast.
“I don’t know how it would be small, attached houses with no parking,” Leonard said.
“If there was a business license to do it, it wouldn’t be in a single-family, residential block.”
Like Maley, Leonard also said she is sympathetic to the financial plights of AirBnbers, and confessed that she is still educating herself on the mechanics of the service. But when she considers the possibility of regulating it in Collingswood, Leonard said, “I always hit a wall in one area or another.
“I’m open to finding out if there’s any place to do it,” she said. “I’m currently a ‘no,’ but I want to help those people, and I want to figure out what to do.”
Of the three local officials, only Collingswood Commissioner Rob Lewandowski believes there’s a possible legislative option to allow homeowners to operate AirBnbs in the borough. But he doesn’t think it’s uncomplicated, and he knows he’s in the minority on the governing body.
“I absolutely think we should not discount that the economic model that many people live under has changed,” Lewandowski said. “For many people, including our residents, stringing together temporary jobs and sources of income using technology-driven opportunities like the AirBnBs and the Ubers, this is real and this is permanent.”
Lewandowski said the challenge is not unlike the balance that communities had to strike when home-based businesses became more common locally in the early 2000s—that is, it’s a concern, but one manageable with compromise.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to consider not just the opportunities that come from AirBnb, but the possibilities, the intended consequences, and the unintended,” he said.
“The issue is nuance. I know people wanted a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but getting it right is in the details.
“I’m open to that,” he said. “I’m hoping my fellow commissioners will be open to that process.”
Lewandowski said any potential solution would have to limit AirBnbs to units that are owner-occupied, maybe with a cap of around 90 rental dates annually.
Licenses would include strict terms on inspections, occupancy, fire safety, and parking, and would be easily forfeited if owners fail to comply.
Even with all that, Lewandowski said he still has concerns about the personal liability involved in an AirBnb arrangement. He’s not sure that any system the commissioners could devise would function the way renters like Spallone, McLean, and Cloud had been operating.
“In the end, I don’t think short-term rentals are the solution to a lot of people’s income problems, and I also don’t think it’s the problem that a lot of people make it out to be,” Lewandowski said.
“A lot of times our discussion and dialogue becomes more inflamed than the actual issue should be,” he said. “[We should] stay open to the benefits and also the imperfections, and figure out how to deal with those.”
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