Renting rooms in her Collingswood home through AirBnB has helped Suzanne Cloud pay her mortgage for four years. The borough said she’s technically running a boardinghouse, which is prohibited.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 16, 2018
After the economic downturn of the mid-2000s, Suzanne Cloud had lost a good-paying job and most of her savings.
To help make ends meet, the Collingswood resident started renting out three unused rooms in her home through AirBnB, a home-sharing service that caters primarily to travelers.
Cloud, who also operates Jazz Bridge, a nonprofit that supports musicians in need, said she thought she was covered under local zoning law for beds-and-breakfasts.
But after a neighbor’s complaint, Cloud was ordered to stop renting her home through the website, and now worries that she might lose a valuable source of income.
Collingswood zoning law only permits beds-and-breakfasts in single-family, detached homes with at least 2,000 square-feet of living space. Guests can’t stay for more than two weeks, no more than five rooms can be rented within each home at a time, and properties must offer two parking spaces for residents and one per guest room.
Cloud’s home falls short of the ordinance by 200 square-feet and one driveway. As a short-term renter—her guests were staying for six weeks, on average—she’s stuck in an intermediate place, legally. The borough zoning officer likened her operation to a boardinghouse, which is prohibited in Collingswood.
Cloud, who’s lived in town for 36 years, operating her AirBnB since 2014, said that definition is too limited within the strictures of the sharing economy.
“I don’t think they’ve prosecuted anybody for running an AirBnB, but there’s a lot of people in Collingswood who are running one,” Cloud said.
(A recent search on AirBnB.com returned listings for 48 rentals within the 08108 zip code.)
“Ninety percent of my guests are medical students doing a rotation at Cooper,” she said.
“They’re young people who need a break on rent.”
Cloud has already spent some $4,000 to defend her position, which the borough zoning board will consider at its February 7 meeting.
Although costly, she said it’s an investment in keeping her home.
“A lot of AirBnB’ers are boomers who lost their savings and their houses got in jeopardy,” Cloud said. “That’s why I did it. It’s something I truly believe in. When I’m fully booked, 100 percent of my mortgage is paid through AirBnB.
“I would have lost my house if that income didn’t come in,” she said. “If I can’t keep it going, I’m going to have to sell the house and move.”
AirBnB notes that Cloud’s experience is common among users of its service.
“Home sharing allows working and middle-class residents turn what is typically one of their greatest expenses into a tool to help make ends meet,” the company said in a statement heralding a 2015 change in Philadelphia law permitting its services. “The vast majority of our hosts, an average of 82 percent, are simply renting the home in which they live.”
Philadelphia’s law change coincided with the papal visit to the city, which is about the last time that Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said his local government was asked to consider its stance on short-term rentals.
(Many Collingswood AirBnB listings still advertise their proximity to the city and Pope Francis’ trip there, an indicator that those sites might not have been particularly active since.)
Maley said it’s possible the local government could consider a rule change, but not before the February zoning board hearing is decided.
“We usually don’t pass a law because of one thing,” Maley said.
The mayor likened AirBnB to ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft: technically, all cabs must be licensed locally, but enforcing the statute is “impossible.
“I think the difficulty is, what’s the difference between that [AirBnB] use and a boardinghouse?” he said.
“Generally, you have to be licensed. There’s only a number of them in town. It’s regulated.”
Collingswood Fire Chief Keith Davis knows of only one boardinghouse in the borough, and said its operations had been grandfathered in. From the perspective of the fire department, zoning code, which includes building code, is generally necessary for occupant safety.
Davis said guests who are unfamiliar with a rental property might not know where the exits are in an emergency, and firefighters who show up to a call might not know how many people are housed within the building.
“The codes are written where you can do whatever you want with you and your family [inside],” he said. “When you’re charging a fee and have people staying at your house, it changes liability. When you have transient people coming out and multiple people living in a building that wasn’t built for that purpose, then it becomes a hazard.”
Fire code requirements for a home used as a boardinghouse (or AirBnB rental) might be adapted to include things like hard-wired fire detection, sprinkler systems, or emergency exit lights. But Davis said New Jersey fire code “hasn’t caught up with the technology that’s out there right now.
“It’s something that the fire officials are working towards,” he said.
Collingswood Borough Administrator Keith Hastings said the community has spent most of the past 20 years trying to reduce its multi-unit property count, incentivizing homeowners to convert duplexes, triplexes, and quads into single-family homes.
To this day, it’s prohibited to turn single-family homes into multi-family units; those in operation must prove a grandfathered use.
“At the time, it was [because of] absentee landlords,” Hastings said. “Everybody had a problem [property] on their block that wasn’t being looked after.
“Times have changed, but we haven’t had a push to change our ordinance.”
In a 2016 paper for SPNHA Review at Grand Valley State University, Nathaniel R. Mehmed pointed out that the novelty of the sharing economy has outstripped most local zoning law, and argues that a change is due.
“Municipal leadership must take a grassroots, comprehensive approach, and determine what is best for their individual needs given their available resources. The government adage of incrementalism, or building upon past policies with incremental modifications, also may or may not be a solution.”
Cloud said she’s hopeful that her case could lead to some longer-term policy changes for the borough, if not for herself.
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