City talks about catching up with Airbnb-style lodgings
In recent years, an international trend of unorthodox travel lodging has grown exponentially and Stevens Point officials say it’s time to catch up with the times.
The trend resembles the bed and breakfast business model, but is facilitated by companies that pair travelers with hosts – primarily people with an extra bed in their house – for a relatively short-term stay.
“In communities across the globe and right here in central Wisconsin, visitors are turning away from traditional hotels lodging options during their travels,” said Sara Brish, executive director of the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
To start off the discussion, the Stevens Point City Plan Commission expressed desire Monday, Nov. 7, to set guidelines for lodging uses such as these companies, but not restrict them too much and hurt the growing market while striking a fair balance for traditional hotel lodging.
The most widely-known of these companies is Airbnb. According to the company’s website, it’s has grown to more than 2 million listings since 2009 in 191 countries across the globe. The listings range from, “an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month.”
The niche market such companies have cornered are centered on the philosophy of “living like a local” while visiting a destination. For lack of a better definition, these have been called “short-term rentals.”
These companies have a user-rating system in place to protect its customers. For example, if a host doesn’t provide clean, safe accommodations, the companies will blacklist them and never allow them to “rent” again.
“Short-term rental websites such as Airbnb, VRBO, CouchSurfing, Gameday Housing, Flipkey and Homeaway, to name a few, are offering visitors the opportunity to rent a house or room as they visit destinations near and far,” Brish said. “Earlier today (Monday), I checked and there were 18 listings on Airbnb and five on Homeaway in the Stevens Point area.”
This growing trend doesn’t have city officials concerned, per say, but they argue for setting up some municipal-level oversight for people who list rooms/beds/houses with such companies to protect all parties involved.
“This already is happening, there listings (in Stevens Point) today. In fact, I was recently contacted by someone who was interested in doing a short-term vacation lease while they were out of town and wanted to know what the guidelines were and I said, ‘We don’t have guidelines right now but we’re working on it,’” said Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza.
“If you go to airbnb.com – and probably another half-dozen or so sites – that list properties like this, it may be something from a futon in a spare room somewhere all the up to a guest house or a whole house,” Wiza said. “It happens a lot and it’s very much a trend that’s here to stay, I think. It’s very important that we figure out how we want to handle these things. For our safety, the safety of the community and the safety of the people that are renting these properties.”
“Data shows that people staying in a short-term rental travel differently than a traditionally tourist staying 2.1 times longer and spending 1.8 times more,” Brish said. “91 percent of these tech-savvy explorers choose to stay in a short-term rental because they want to live like a local.”
“This short term rental platform is not going away. 22 percent of leisure travelers have stayed in a vacation home rental during the past two years and 49 percent of leisure travelers are interested in staying in a short-term home rental during the next two years,” she said.
“The other component to this is some unfair competition. If you lease out a facility and don’t have to pay room tax when other bed and breakfasts and hotels do, so we really need to address these concerns as well as our zoning ordinances as well,” said Michael Ostrowski, director of Community Development.
Another problem residents of single-family neighborhoods could possibly face if the city doesn’t get the jump on setting guidelines for these types of uses is finding themselves neighbors to a year-round rental, said Commissioner Gary Curless.
“That is a very valid concern,” Wiza said.
Ostrowski said these types of businesses don’t fit organically into really any of the different levels of Stevens Point zoning because of their unique style of use. They aren’t rentals in a traditional sense, although in some cases people might be “renting” out a house for a few weeks. But they also don’t fit into the lodging category as they range vastly in accommodations.
A local couple looking to start a similar type of business spurred the conversation because they asked the city to establish some guidelines before they get too far into the launch of their business.
Bill Schierl and his wife, Serena Melotte, local entrepreneurs, recently purchased the historical house at 1665 Main St. – the history of which was recently published by the Portage County Gazette in a four-part series by Wendell Nelson – with the intentions of fixing it up and starting a bed and breakfast-style business where people could stay in the house while on vacation.
“We are turning it into – based on my wife’s great idea – an Airbnb-type facility … it will 100 percent going to be a single-family home ‘rental’ as you get the whole house,” said Schierl. “I totally hear what Commissioner Curless is saying. How is that monitored? I don’t have an answer to that, but I also wanted to at least have the face behind a project in the community that hopefully will take a blighted facility to a new direction. We hope to have it be a beautiful gateway to the community and have pride in what Stevens Point has to offer to bring people here in a way they can truly live like a local. That they can walk downtown and be a part of things going on in the community.”
Their property will not be a part of Airbnb, it will be their own locally-operated business, he said.
He also said they hope it will show what can be done with old historical homes falling into disrepair and serve as an example of how they can be turned into viable businesses, both boosting the community’s economy and creating initiative to restore culturally significant structures.
“I am recommending the city consider supporting an ordinance which will create framework for this trending lodging option to be legal, but on equal footing with licensed hotel and bed and breakfast accommodations,” Brish said. “Meaning that homeowners will be required to be licensed and homes will be inspected ensuring safe drinking water, functioning carbon monoxide detectors and fire detectors. I am also recommending that homeowners collect room tax just as hotels and bed and breakfast establishments do.”
Among the possible actions the city could take, Plan Commission members and city staff expressed a desire to set a limit for how long one guest can stay at one host’s lodging, requiring hosts to pay room tax (which is common in most communities) and periodic spot-checks to make sure everything is up to safety codes.
The Plan Commission took no action at its Monday meeting. Wiza said the city plans to have an ordinance drafted up by next month’s round of committee and Common Council meetings.