Airbnb effect: Cities wrestle with regulations

The city is wrestling with how to regulate short-term rentals, given the effects some say they have on neighborhoods and housing. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A Nob Hill-area resident says her neighborhood was “hugely affected” after an Airbnb moved in, although the owner of that property says he has made numerous changes to address concerns.

Across town, Lorraine Gallegos says guests at the short-term rental in her West Side neighborhood torched her 88-year-old mother’s car after a “party that got out of hand.”

These are some of the stories people tell about the growing short-term rental business, particularly when the owner or manager doesn’t live on the property.

But hosts for Airbnb and other platforms in Albuquerque say these kinds of problems are the exception and don’t reflect the care that many owners take when running their operations.

Lacy Pontes, who manages 12 short-term rentals around Albuquerque, inside one of her properties south of Nob. Hill. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Lacy Pontes has made a successful business of it, managing 12 properties in the far Northeast Heights and Nob Hill and Old Town areas. She said she has received one complaint among the 2,500 reservations she has taken over the past three years for her houses, casitas and condos.

Tawnya Mullen, who rents out a duplex and is on a city task force examining the issue, says short-term rental owners often improve neighborhoods by purchasing vacant or abandoned properties and fixing them up.

Standards must be high, she says, if hosts want to stay in business.

Unlike other cities, Albuquerque does not have specific regulations covering short-term rentals. There is no registration requirement, no permit fee and no density limit other than those already outlined in city zoning and land use rules.

The task force, established by City Councilor Diane Gibson, is wrestling with whether there should be regulation and how much.

It’s an extremely contentious issue, as evidenced by a recent task force public meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd.

Impact on housing

There are no numbers showing how many absent property owners operate short-term rentals in Albuquerque.

Total numbers from Airbnb show in 2018 there were 366,000 guest arrivals in New Mexico who used the Airbnb platform, and hosts made a total of $48.8 million.

A pond welcomes visitors to the backyard at one of Lacy Pontes’ short-term rentals. Pontes says she has received one complaint among the 2,500 reservations she has taken over the past three years. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Homewise, a New Mexico nonprofit that helps people purchase homes, has hired a researcher to look at the effect short-term rentals have on the availability of both long-term rentals and affordable housing, said chief executive officer Mike Loftin. The goal is to examine how many units would be available for more permanent residents if they hadn’t been turned into short-term properties.

“Clearly, (short-term rentals) are taking long-term rental housing and home ownership off the market for people who live and work in a community,” Loftin said.

(The town of Taos is taking a crack at that problem by diverting $100 of an annual $400 fee for certain properties and placing it into an affordable housing fund.)

The Albuquerque City Council is also looking to get a better handle on the issue. The 15-member task force is charged with studying registration requirements, possible fees and regulations to address safety and nuisance complaints.

The task force has until June to make recommendations to the City Council.

Gibson said she decided to tackle the issue “because of complaint calls I had been getting in past years – more in the past year – everything from parking issues to a lot of in-and-out traffic.”

“In this industry, there are very few barriers to entry,” she said of Albuquerque’s current situation.

Gibson has emphasized that she thinks short-term rentals are “a beautiful thing for Albuquerque,” but she’s concerned about neighborhood residents as well as guests who are visiting the city.

“I want to make sure our tourists, people who are visiting Albuquerque, have a good experience,” she said. “I want their accommodations to be safe and clean so they don’t go home and have anything bad to say about their experience.”

To regulate or not

One of the bedrooms at a property Lacy Pontes manages in a residential area south of Nob Hill. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Pontes and others maintain there are already enough regulations on the books to handle any problems, through police and fire departments, the city’s noise ordinance and other laws.

Also, Pontes points out, her business is regulated by the ability her guests have to comment on her Airbnb listings.

“Given that this is my livelihood, I pay attention,” Pontes said. “If there are issues, you get bad reviews. If you get bad reviews, you don’t get bookings.”

The recent task force hearing was a racuous one, with some property owners shouting at staff who were trying to explain points on which members have reached consensus.

Among those drawing the most vocal dissent was a proposed annual fee – $250 for the first year and an unspecified lower amount in subsequent years. City staff noted that the amount could be changed, based on public comment.

While there is no short-term rental registration fee now, Airbnb has started collecting city lodgers taxes from listed properties.

Elsewhere in New Mexico, Santa Fe and Taos both charge annual fees and require that no more than two people stay in a bedroom. Santa Fe goes further and allows no more than two short-term rental homes in a row in a residential zone “to eliminate the creation of virtual motels,” said Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe, the city’s tourism promotion agency.

However, four Santa Fe city councilors are proposing loosening some restrictions.

Cities elsewhere that have cracked down include Kansas City, Mo., which says off-site owners must get the OK from 55 percent of adjacent property owners or apply for a special-use permit, and Boulder, Colo., which allows short-term rentals only at the owner’s main residence.

Albuquerque task force members have agreed that owners should not be required to live on the property, and that a “Good Neighbor Agreement” should be voluntary, encouraging rental hosts to “notify adjacent neighbors as a courtesy.”

Complaints

Lorraine Gallegos said her mother, who still works, was forced to take some time off after the people staying next door burned her car.

“There’s music until 5 or 6 in the morning, and fighting in my front yard,” said Gallegos, who attended the recent City Council task force meeting with her mother and a neighbor.

Airbnb spokeswoman Laura Rillos says the company, in response to the car-torching incident, “removed this guest from our platform for violating our terms of service.”

She added that Airbnb listings have had more than 400 million guests, and “negative incidents are extremely rare.” The site’s review system allows users to see comments about guests, hosts and homes, she said. It also has started a “Neighbor Tool,” where people can report problems with a property in their area.

Terry Quinn, in front of her Nob Hill-area home, says a short-term rental in her neighborhood has drawn traffic and occasional noise. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Terry Quinn, a task force member who lives in the Nob Hill area, said the most expensive home on her block was sold and turned in to a short-term rental by an owner who lives off-site.

It has four bedrooms and allows 10 guests – an operation that essentially “set up a business in the middle of our street,” Quinn said.

A week after property owner John Seaver reduced the maximum occupancy from 12 to the current 10 in response to complaints, a catering truck pulled up because an event had been scheduled at the home, neighbors said.

“This could happen to anybody, and it’s just not right,” Quinn said.

She added: “I’m not saying they should be outlawed. I use them myself, to be really honest. But I would like to see a more realistic number of people per house.”

Even though guests might not be rowdy, the rental home brings more traffic and noise to the area, Quinn said.

The owner of the rental home, John Seaver, said he has tried to be responsive to complaints, adding to his Airbnb listing that no events were allowed and taking down a basketball hoop that prompted a noise complaint.

Seaver and his company, Just Sprinklers, have purchased two homes for short-term rentals to help fund his and his wife’s retirement.

He noted that his other short-term rental house, located nearby, has won praise from its neighbors because it used to be rundown and a community eyesore.

Seaver said he and his wife did a complete renovation, even hiring an interior decorator.

Gibson is matter-of-fact about the whole thing.

“I think it’s going to take continued conversations,” she said.

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