BI airbnbs: Knit retreats not party places

Airbnbs on Bainbridge Island are not party places.

“They aren’t three-day, all-night bachelorette parties,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, who operates Dahlia Bluff Cottage. “They are primarily for knit retreats and to go on hikes.”

A number of Airbnb owners spoke during public comments at the Sept. 26 City Council meeting.

The council is considering a short-term rental law for residential dwellings of less than 30 days per stay. The draft law establishes a registration system, ensures owners pay city taxes and fees, and establishes quality of life protection for residents. The goal for the city is to prevent the loss of rental housing stock, preserve quality of neighborhoods, capture tax revenue, allow economic gain for residents, support tourism in a balanced way and more.

The council could adopt the law Oct. 10.

The owners of the short-term rentals say the city has it all wrong. They are not a problem. On the contrary, they provide many benefits.

They are important because they bring in income that helps owners stay on BI, which is unaffordable for so many. They also provide a need for visitors to the island due to a lack of hotels. The owners say they also provide a positive experience that gives visitors a good impression of BI.

Rather than to party, Fitzgerald said out of about 1,000 responses on Airbnb, 31% of BI visitors come here for family reasons such as graduations, funerals, wedding, etc. They are looking for a peaceful and serene place that will provide “relief to get away from it all.”

Mary Linford, who operates Cozy Hobbit House, said the rental “allows us to stay on the island and for our daughter to go to college.” She said they let visitors know about good places to eat. “It benefits the island more than us,” she said, adding they only had a $12,000 profit while providing about $68,000 to BI restaurants. They also pay taxes and buy products from other local businesses.

She said the owners really enjoy what they do. “It’s a source of passion and joy for all of us.”

Keith Brofsky said he’s had fewer problems with short-term rentals than long-term ones. “It’s tricky to find good tenants,” he said of the alternative. With short-term, “Airbnb does all the screening for us. It’s kind of a relief.”

He said he has neighbors who have long-term rentals and have more issues. He said he makes 30% more income this way so it helps him pay his mortgage. He gets insurance protection and “booking is quite easy” with Airbnb. “People are on their best behavior” as online reputations are important. Brofsky said he also takes guests around town. “It’s a wonderful experience to be a host. I’m almost like an ambassador.”

Leah Applewhite said their businesses fill an important role on BI, providing lodging for people with special needs and who are unable to find a hotel room. They can provide a better place than a hotel room for family gatherings. She said they all are involved in their neighborhoods to make sure things are “harmonious.”

Applewhite said the regulations the city is looking at go beyond what is needed so more research would be helpful.

Brooke Drury, who owns Hummingbird Haven, said she hopes the new law doesn’t put them out of business. She said there is a lack of accurate information about the short-term rentals. She said they want to be good neighbors and level the playing field so parts of the draft law they agree with. But she said their guests like the quiet and trails and wildlife. “We add value,” to BI, she said, adding they also support local businesses.

Claire Duckmanton of Froggy Heights agreed that high housing prices mean some residents need extra income. She also has four adult children visit, and they need somewhere to stay so the short-term works better for her than long-term rentals.

City manager Blair King said the city wants to get all of the short-term rentals registered. While many of the owners who spoke at the meeting are licensed and pay taxes, not all do so there needs to be a law out of fairness. He said only 100 of 230 active rentals are licensed.

Councilmember Joe Deets said he has heard of some problems at such rentals, but it was “powerful to hear your stories. It was enlightening to me.” He added it actually is one of the solutions to the housing crisis because “It helps them stay.”

Councilmember Clarence Moriwaki said when he travels he likes to go to Airbnb because he can get to know the community better that way. He can find out, “What’s the coolest place to hang out?” One concern the council had was such businesses had advantages over hotels, but Moriwaki said, “They don’t consider you competition at all.”

Councilmember Leslie Schneider said she likes to avoid chain hotels and likes the Airbnb experience much better. She also likes that the business owners are helped through additional income and that their kids have places to stay when they come home.

Councilmembers Jon Quitslund, Kirsten Hytopoulos and Michael Pollock all were concerned that the draft law did not address one of the council’s biggest concerns — such as rentals being owned by people who don’t live here.

“We don’t want that to happen,” Hytopoulos said, adding the draft needs some tweaks. She does like that the law would force people to register, so we know “who we are dealing with.” She also likes that all will have to register their business so some aren’t “taking advantage of it.”

Pollock agreed there should be different laws dealing with people who live here and those who invest for commercial benefit. “This is a way for people to make their houses affordable,” he said, adding “homeowners are just trying to make ends meet.”

The draft law “has some scary-sounding language that if you some something wrong we’ll shut you down,” he said, adding he thinks the draft law should be simplified and focus on the registration program.

Pollock also said he sees some “equity issues” with the law as many of the short-term rentals are run by women. He said the city needs to track who is impacted by the law. He is concerned that the city is overreaching considering problems have been few. “It feels a bit much for the problem, or lack of a problem, that we have on the island right now.”

Mayor Brenda Fantroy-Johnson said some of these business owners are getting the benefit of being on BI without having to pay the taxes. With this, “Everybody is on the same playing field. I don’t think it’s too heavy-handed.”