A fantastic way to attract budget-conscious travelers into Harrisburg.
Or . . .
A tax-dodging menace to the city’s historic neighborhoods.
As they say, where you sit is where you stand, and that cliché may never have been more appropriate than during last night’s city-sponsored confab on all things Airbnb.
Harrisburg officials hosted the meeting (meant to be invitation-only until the press ruined that plan) to hear from a select group of proponents and opponents, as to how—or if—the city should regulate the run-your-own hospitality service.
“We’re here tonight to take information from you, the current operators,” said Michael Hughes, Harrisburg’s tax and enforcement administrator. “Cities all across the United States are treating this in many different ways, and we’re going to develop our own way.”
Over 90 minutes, Hughes and other officials, including Fire Chief Brian Enterline, Planner Geoffrey Knight and Solicitor Neil Grover, heard arguments for and against so-called short-term rentals, which include Airbnb and other Internet-based room reservation services. The wide-ranging discussion included such issues as zoning, taxation and safety.
Dee Fegan, chair of the board of the PA Association of Bed & Breakfast Inns, was the first to speak up, objecting that Airbnb hosts do not currently pay the Dauphin County hotel tax or, in many cases, other taxes, such as sales and mercantile taxes, which apply to traditional B&Bs.
“I just want to point out that rules are already in place,” she said. “It’s just up to people to follow them.”
Mike Wilson, owner of the Manor on Front Bed and Breakfast, made a similar point.
“I have nothing against Airbnb,” he said. “But I just want to make sure they follow the same rules and regulations as we have to.”
Besides taxes, the regulations that apply to traditional B&Bs may involve issues of fire prevention, parking and access for the disabled.
Ted Hanson, who owns a short-term rental on Boas Street, said that some B&B regulations would not apply to him because most Airbnb properties do not serve food. In addition, he long has leased out his two-bedroom Airbnb house, which is next door to his own home, on an annual basis, but now is just renting it in a different way. Besides, he said, he’s helping to stimulate the local economy.
“I feel like I’m doing a service for the city,” he said. “I send people to businesses all over Midtown.”
From a zoning perspective, Knight said he could see carving out a niche for short-term rentals within the current code, such as mandating that owners occupy their rental buildings, take out a mercantile license and not hang signs.
Those requirements might solve some of the problems that Thomas Lupkie is having with an Airbnb two doors down from his Shipoke home. At last night’s meeting, Lupkie spoke at length about Airbnb guests blocking his driveway and trampling his flowers while staying in a house that he said is owned by a man who lives in Texas.
“Occupants are running through my yard, and I can’t get into my garage,” he said. “I have grave concerns about short-term rentals.”
In contrast, both Hanson and Teena Brinkley, who rents a couple of spare bedrooms in her house on N. 2nd Street in Uptown, said that their guests often behave better than some of the people who live in the neighborhood. Brinkley added that, without Airbnb, most of her guests otherwise could not afford to stay overnight in the city.
“My average rental is $40 a night,” she said. “They’re not going to stay at these fine bed and breakfasts.”
Devan Drabik, Harrisburg’s business development director, said that banning Airbnb would simply push that lower-end business to other short-term rentals just outside the city.
“It will just cause people to go one mile away,” she said.
Hughes said that the city now needs to ponder what changes, if any, to make to laws and regulations to accommodate short-term rentals. He’d like any changes to take effect on Jan. 1.
“Airbnbs were never contemplated when the rules were passed,” said Solicitor Grover. “Now, we have to answer the question—do those rules apply or not?”
Click here to read our recent feature about Airbnb in Harrisburg.
Author: Lawrance Binda