Despite concerns about preserving neighborhood character, borough officials may be motivated to regulate short-term rentals to shore up fire and safety risks.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 5, 2018
After having previously worked to shut down local participation in home-sharing services like AirBnb, Collingswood officials are now signaling a shift in policy.
Since citing resident Suzanne Cloud for running an illegal boardinghouse from her single-family home in January, borough commissioners have fretted about the effects of short-term rentals on neighborhood character.
Now Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley says he’s more concerned about potential safety risks from not regulating the service.
“The fire chief is just concerned that if we don’t have anything directly regulating it, in terms of health and safety issues, that there will be too many people at risk because people will still do it,” Maley said.
“That’s why we’re taking another look at it.”
Despite claiming that officials are “not in any rush” to pass any new ordinances, Maley said current enforcement also is complicated by the absence of local regulations and definitions addressing short-term rentals.
“Beyond that, it’s how do we set up a mechanism to regulate this, what forms do people have to do, who has to enforce it,” he said.
This week, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that mandates the collection of sales and hotel taxes on “transient accommodation” services like AirBnb and VRBO.
But the opportunity of adding a municipal percentage to those fees (several communities already collect such a tax) isn’t a motivator for the mayor, who said the borough lacks the user density for such an initiative to be financially worthwhile.
“It ain’t much of a carrot for me,” Maley said.
“For us, it’s just not that many people doing it.”
Maley said his principal concerns still center on quality of life in the neighborhood, which he and Commissioner Joan Leonard expressly fear will be threatened by broader participation in AirBnb.
“I keep asking—and I’m still not getting good answers on it—how does this benefit the neighborhood?” Maley said.
“I get how different people can go shop [locally],” he said. “I get how it’s good for the host because they make a buck. I get how it’s good for the people who stay there because they can save on a hotel.
“Pick a block in town and ask how it’s good for the block.”
‘Code’s always evolving because of tragedy’
Collingswood Fire Chief Keith Davis said that local prohibitions against AirBnb may not be enough to prevent scofflaws from participating in the service.
But by regulating short-term rentals, he thinks the borough can establish a valuable framework for safety that doesn’t exist by outlawing them.
“Because the [zoning] codes have not caught up with the new technology such as AirBnb and other home-sharing sites, there’s really no regulation for them,” Davis said.
“It’s more of a short-term rental ordinance, which we really don’t have on the books right now.”
Most importantly, the chief argued that failing to establish more robust safety provisions can expose residents, renters, and their surrounding neighborhoods to unnecessary risks.
“The code’s always evolving, and that’s because of tragedy,” Davis said. “I think it would be a good thing in whole if we put the restrictions in place [ahead of time].
“That will also give it an avenue for the people who aren’t following the rules,” he said.
Davis said he’d like any statute on short-term rentals to include provisions for emergency and exit lighting, fire plans, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, as well as general property upkeep.
He argued that establishing a framework for short-term rentals could provide a way for compliance with local law while offering a process for revoking the licenses of renters who don’t follow the rules.
“We should regulate it and go from there,” he said. “My viewpoint is always: is it safe for the people in the property, the people who own the property, and the people in the neighborhood?
“I think we need a balance making the community safe for everybody,” Davis said.
‘You can ignore it but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening’
Although he believes market mechanics naturally regulate most bad renters and problem tenants, Collingswood Commissioner Rob Lewandowski believes the municipality should be taking steps to shore up its legal liabilities nonetheless.
“I think we really need to fine-tune our zoning ordinances to better reflect what’s out there, including the AirBnb, short-term rental, home-sharing phenomenon,” Lewandowski said.
“Part of that, to me, is outlining the parameters just like anything else.”
One model ordinance the commissioner said he’s reviewing originated in Pacific Grove, California, which offers licenses for short-term and home-sharing rentals. It covers a number of contingencies that are among Lewandowski’s priorities, including:
- Lengths of stay (no more than 90 days a year, or 28 consecutive)
- Occupancy (no more than two adults per bedroom)
- Compliance with building and fire code
- Tenant information (provide information on local laws for parking, trash, egress, etc.)
- Exclusionary zoning (limit the number of rental properties in a given area)
- No building modifications for the purposes of creating additional rooms to rent short-term
- No physical advertising of rooms for rent on the premises
- Limitations of short-term rentals to owner-occupied properties
- Possibility of additional insurance to cover liability gaps
In addition to covering municipal liability, Lewandowski said he believes vouchsafing the rights of property owners is an important component of the discussion.
“I don’t think [short-term renting] solves everyone’s cash problems, and I don’t think it’s going to cause the problems that people think,” he said. “It’s just something you can’t discount in the economic model that’s happening.
“It’s not just Uber and AirBnb,” Lewandowski said. “People are getting much more agile in identifying resources and sharing away, and in some ways, this sort of fits in that mold. You can ignore it but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
Collingswood Bike Share Coordinator and AirBnb superhost Chrissy Spallone, who discontinued renting her home through the service while the borough sorts out its regulatory position, said she’s encouraged by the latest discussion.
“I’m glad that there seems to be some kind of evolution, even if it’s just in response to [fire regulations],” Spallone said.
Frustrated by Maley’s contention that short-term rentals are harmful to neighborhood character, she said prior, positive testimonials from neighbors and an impeccable AirBnb record have done little to sway the mayor.
“I don’t know what the magic word is,” Spallone said.
“I think when people stay at my house, that builds our culture. People have guests over that you don’t always know, but the owner is still there; they’re still your neighbor.”
She argued that home-sharing has an economic value that helps preserve the stability of the neighborhood by giving homeowners another revenue opportunity to offset their costs of living.
“Would you rather have this same neighbor have to move every time their family situation changes?” she said. “You’d have to pack up and move every time there’s a divorce, or a kid goes to college, or there’s a death in the family. “
Collingswood resident Suzanne Cloud said that she hopes any changes come soon for fear of losing her AirBnb superhost status as well as the income that came with it.
“I lose it if I don’t book a certain number of people in a year,” she said.
Cloud turned to AirBnb when her retirement plans were quashed by the economic downturn at the turn of the century.
Since being barred from the service, she has supplemented her social security income with work as a college teacher and grantwriter, activities she said “barely cover my expenses.”
“I don’t have a lot of debt except for my house,” Cloud said.
“That was my ace in the hole.”
But local short-term rental regulations could restore some of her earnings as well as rectifying a lapse in the borough code.
“We have no ordinances to do [home-sharing],” Cloud said. “This isn’t a boardinghouse. It’s not a bed-and-breakfast. This isn’t grandma trying to manage a triplex or a duplex. This is somebody living in your bedroom for a couple weeks.”
For prior coverage of this issue, visit the NJ Pen archives:
- Collingswood Resident to Challenge Zoning Regs in AirBnB Case (January 16, 2018)
- Collingswood AirBnb Crackdown Yields Lots of Chatter, Few Solutions (June 14, 2018)
NJ Pen is free thanks to regular, small contributions. Please support our work. Get e-mails, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or try Direct Dispatch, our new text service.