Rep. Richard Malaby (R-Hancock) is co-sponsor of a bill that would require licensing and regulation of short-term rentals.

Airbnb rentals are in crosshairs

BAR HARBOR — A Hancock lawmaker and inn owner is sponsoring a bill that would require licensing and regulation of one-night “Airbnb” style rentals.

Airbnb is a website that facilitates short-term, international rentals. The popularity of the service has grown in recent years, with room pricing typically much lower than that found at traditional lodging establishments.

L.D. 436, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Richard Malaby (R-Hancock), would require Airbnb hosts and others seeking to rent out rooms by the night to obtain innkeeper’s licenses from the state Department of Health and Human Services. Rentals would need to meet state standards for lighting, fire safety, plumbing and other structural issues. The bill, which was written with assistance of the Maine Innkeepers Association, also would require proprietors to collect state lodging sales taxes.

Malaby said in an interview with the Islander Tuesday that he is not trying to put one-night rental owners out of business with the bill, but to bring some equity into the situation.

“My intent is not to thwart competition,” Malaby said. “I want a level playing field, that’s all I want.”

Malaby added that as much as he would like to see the bill pass, he believes that it will fail to become law at this time, because Airbnb has a statewide presence that many people are against regulating. He also believes his Republican peers will vote against it, as the bill adds a layer of regulatory authority to state government.

“I got over 400 emails objecting to the bill, which indicates a good amount of opposition,” he said.

A public hearing on L.D. 436 in Augusta on Monday drew a large crowd and elicited more than two hours of impassioned testimony from both sides, Malaby said. One of Governor Paul LePage’s senior policy advisors, Holly Lusk, threw a new twist into the process when she not only testified against the bill, but advocated doing away with lodging regulations entirely.

“Assuming the department could find the new lodging places that would require licensure and inspection, significant new state resources would need to be secured to respond to the expected dramatic increase in regulated lodging places,” Lusk said. “Rather than attempting to create a level playing field for lodging establishments through the creation of additional regulation, the administration is already considering deregulation of lodging establishments.”

Malaby said he thought the Governor’s idea was a pretty good one, and he would back exploring it further.

“At least there’s a sense that everybody can do it,” he said. “The issue then becomes one of proper zoning, and that is a municipal issue.”

Local view

Pat Samuel, the owner of the Graycote Inn downtown and the founding president of the Bar Harbor Bed and Breakfast Association, told the Islander that the idea of deregulating an industry so vital to Maine’s economic health is a terrible one.

“It is the responsibility of government to perform those public safety functions that are best performed in a uniform way, statewide,” she said. “Tourism is a huge business in the state of Maine. Just the fact that this is being discussed is not helpful.”

Samuel said she stands firmly behind Malaby’s bill as a way of leveling the playing field and creating a safer environment for all tourists.

“If people are paying money to stay in your place, then you are in the business of transient accommodations, and you need to be licensed and inspected,” she said. “The unfairness is people who essentially aren’t paying the cost of doing business … because they don’t want to admit they have a business. If you are renting rooms, you’ve got a business, whether you care to admit that or not.”

There are more than 200 Bar Harbor listings on Airbnb; some are for nightly, while others are for more traditional weekly rentals.

Weekly vacation rentals would be exempted from Malaby’s proposal, but in Bar Harbor, the use is regulated. The 300-or-so weekly rental owners here must obtain a one-time license and safety inspection from the town before they can legally operate. However, daily Airbnb-style rentals are not included in the town’s weekly rental code and are thus not only allowed but entirely unregulated, code enforcement officer Angela Chamberlain said.

“Uses, if not addressed in the ordinance, are prohibited. But the use in this case is still that of a single-family dwelling. Other than vacation rentals, we don’t regulate how you occupy that single-family dwelling,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain said there have been sporadic calls wondering why the town is allowing one-night Airbnb-style rentals, but she is firm that the practice is simply not addressed.

The idea of Airbnb was not known locally at the time the vacation rental ordinance was crafted. As it stands, vacation rentals are considered anything over five days and less than 31 days. Chamberlain said that changing the language to include Airbnb-type rentals would not be a complex endeavor.

“You could change the language of vacation rentals to ‘less than 30 days’ and it would cover everybody, and that would be a one-time inspection, one-time registration, and everybody would be treated fairly,” she said.

Malaby said that even with the likely failure of his bill, he believes the conversations its introduction has engendered are worth the time.

“The intent of the bill was to have a discussion that focused around, ‘where do you draw the line?’” Malaby said. “There are registered businesses that rent rooms who are finding their volume is being chipped away by these people. We have a lot of people in Maine that have to do different things to make a living, and I appreciate that. But we need a level playing field.”

Robert Levin

Robert Levin

Former reporter Robert Levin covered the people, businesses, governmental and nonprofit agencies of Bar Harbor. [email protected]
Robert Levin

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