For those intrigued by what some are calling the Airbnb age, look no further than the nearby Rondout Valley for a concise view of discourse on the subject.
Last week, the town of Rochester finally held a long-awaited meeting about possible changes to its town law to regulate the short-term rental phenomenon, which supervisor Carl Chipman described in terms of 287 Airbnb listings in his town and “600 to 700 altogether in the county.” Crowds came out to listen as their code enforcement officer, Gerry Davis, told horror stories about “high school kids from New Jersey who were busted up in Woodstock…They had 52 bottles and four kegs and they were all under age” and concerns involving fire safety, adherence to building codes and property maintenance.
Davis suggested that “the proper way is to register every short-term rental like this and issue permits.” One requirement would be a local contact or manager living within 30 to 60 minutes of the property in question. Property maintenance should be up to New York State codes. Taxes should be paid. Others brought up septic systems, and the number of bedrooms per entrance/egress from a home.
But then town residents who’d actually stayed in Airbnbs, or served as the international company’s “hosts,” spoke up to describe how Airbnb actually works, with a strict ratings system, meaning any and all poorly maintained properties will be quickly delisted and misbehaving guests will not be able to rent. As well as how the company itself will handle tax payments to counties and towns, when asked, just as they handle taxes for those same hosts.
One woman spoke of having both long term and short-term rentals and never having a problem, pointing the care she takes choosing tenants. Another pointed out how their visitors went out to local restaurants, visited local attractions, and spent in the area. “This is actually a plus to the community,” said one host, while others pointed out how they worked to show off Rochester and the Rondout Valley while also sprucing up their rental properties to better attract business.
People said that annual inspections seemed a bit much, along with proposed bans on tent rentals, or requirements that local Airbnbs have signage visible from local roads. They noted how it seemed redundant that the county was addressing the same issues.
Later, however, we checked in with Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach about his longstanding proposal, built out of conversations with top Airbnb brass, to fold the company’s local rentals into the county’s bed tax protocols and raise some money for everyone.
“The Legislature is dragging its feet while other counties are enjoying the proceeds from the bed tax through a voluntary collection agreement (VCA) with Airbnb,” Auerbach noted of the proposal he first put forth nearly two years ago, held up by Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk because he wasn’t sure about the oft-used deal’s legality and wanted the state senate sign-off on it first. “If Ronk and company are still waiting for Albany we will see another year go by and be out over $500,000 since the offer was made by Airbnb.”
In Woodstock, supervisor Bill McKenna talked this week of a fire call he went on as a Woodstock FD volunteer last week, and how he got a visit from an appreciative Airbnb landlord the following day.
“His attitude was, ‘Make me permanent, make me pay taxes,'” McKenna said. “We’ve had conversations with attorneys at Airbnb who have been courteous and helpful in helping us regulate what we have. Like any company, though, they’d rather deal with 62 counties than thousands of villages and towns regarding taxes.”
Short-term rentals are a big topic in Woodstock. Town assessor Mark Plate estimates that the annual revenue from such rentals tops $10 million.
Town councilman and Woodstock historian Richard Heppner sits on a new town committee dedicated solely to short-term rentals in Woodstock, and was in on the recent calls with Airbnb attorneys that the supervisor referenced. He said his committee has met a couple of times to date and “is just getting going.” It, like the town of Rochester, is working to move beyond scary stories to something substantive that works with the region’s changing tourism-based economy.
“Airbnb has been very helpful in getting our heads around what’s involved,” Heppner said. “They’ve been giving us places to look at, such as Portland Maine…Every town is different and some towns go crazy, banning short-term rentals altogether, while others get very detailed with the numbers of cars allowed and the exact wording of applications.”
Heppner added that the key to Woodstock’s approach, from the get-go, has been that “we’re not looking to destroy anything; whatever we do, it’s going to take a while.” He added that no one was looking to be making any formal proposals to the town board until well into 2018.
As for the history of the matter, and whether he saw any parallels with earlier Woodstock eras involving boarding houses, Heppner was quick to note how property regulations weren’t a concern then. Moreover, he said, “I think the town was glad to get people coming, putting people up in barns, above garages. That allowed for the artists to come.”
McKenna noted how whatever would come, from the town or county, “I’m only too happy to have any kinds of fees and taxes we can implement.”
And back in Rochester last week, supervisor Chipman ended his town’s raucous discussion of new tourism by suggesting that he saw the whole phenomenon as, “a viable way for some people to hold onto their homes.”
Talk about change.