How did the popular vacation-rental service become a hugely contentious issue in Maine?
By Will Grunewald
With names like Blackberry Commons, Timbercliffe, and Swan House, Camden’s inns seem as elemental to the harborside hamlet’s charm as the placid waters, green hills, and cozy shops. Oh, and they’re expensive, which fits the overall vibe too.
In peak season, rooms generally start around $200 per night and, at tonier joints, can run north of $500. But say you want to find a room on the relative cheap (as I did on a recent Friday night). In that case, you might find yourself scouring Airbnb for a spare bedroom in someone’s home, an apartment above a garage, or even an entire house. For $89, I booked a local couple’s unused room, with its own bathroom and entrance, a short walk from downtown. The price leaves money to burn, maybe on fish-and-chips at the nearby pub or curry noodles at the Thai restaurant before beers at the bar around the corner.
As a traveler, it’s tough to pass up a deal like that. But mention the growing presence of Airbnb around Camden and the townsfolk tend to clam up.
“I would hate to be enemy number one in this town,” one B&B owner wrote in an email, declining an interview on the topic.
“At this time, I will not comment or give interviews on the Airbnb issue in Camden,” wrote the town’s code enforcement officer. “The Planning Board has been addressing this issue.”
And then from the Planning Board chair: “It is very difficult for me to give interviews.”
Why such tight lips? Probably because of the $1.6 billion travelers spent on lodging in Maine last year. Or, more precisely, because of how that money gets divvied up.
Tracy Michaud-Stutzman, chair of the University of Southern Maine’s tourism degree program, points out that Maine’s lodging biz is unusual: “Our tourist housing is really small-scale — outside of Portland and Bangor, there aren’t many Marriotts or Hiltons.” Which means that innkeepers have historically shared much of the overall pot, and they’re protective of their cuts.
“For the owner of a little bed-and-breakfast,” Michaud-Stutzman says, “it’s probably the same customer who would consider either Airbnb or their place. There’s an immediate sense of competition because they’re similar.”
Thus the hard feelings.
Even though the short-term housing market is nothing new to tourist towns, the quick growth of online vacation-rental services has lowered barriers to entry and ratcheted up competition. Airbnb is only the conversational shorthand for a vast industry that includes brands such as HomeAway, VRBO, and FlipKey, all of which charge fees to property owners that pale in comparison to what a traditional management service would require to handle a rental. The upshot: more options and lower prices for consumers.
Norm Henthorn runs the Captain Swift Inn in Camden and also heads the local inn owners’ consortium. “Many members of the group have seen reservations decline this year and last year,” he says. “Some have had people call and specifically say they’re canceling reservations because they found a cheaper place on Airbnb.”
From an inn owner’s perspective, Airbnb challenges fair play. “Whereas we have to pay for licensing and inspections and various certifications,” Henthorn says, “the Airbnb properties don’t have to — or choose not to — do that. Many of them also don’t pay lodging taxes to the state. That’s a benefit they enjoy that we can’t.”
Last year, state legislators, at the urging of the Maine Innkeepers Association, proposed an amendment that would have required anyone offering rentals for periods of less than seven days — pretty much the norm on Airbnb — to follow the same rules and licensing procedures as hotels and B&Bs. Airbnb owners would have had to either retrofit their homes to meet standards for fire safety, ventilation, and lighting or simply drop out of the market. Fortunately for them, the proposal died in committee.
Some towns already have their own rules in place. In Cape Elizabeth, a town ordinance (that took more than a year to agree on before passing in 2012) mandates that property owners go through a permitting process that guarantees standards for waste disposal, evacuation plans, and sufficient parking if they want to rent out a property for fewer than 30 days. In Camden, the rules afford more flexibility. Owner-occupied houses with spare rooms for rent can host paying guests for any amount of time. However, spaces that constitute an entirely livable unit in their own right — meaning they have a separate bathroom and kitchen in addition to living and sleeping spaces — can only rent on a minimum weekly basis.
And yet, a quick Airbnb check shows many short-stay options in Camden with separate baths and kitchens. “The bottom line for the town is that they just can’t enforce it,” say Mac Thomas, from whom I rented my $89 room. “They have their hands full enforcing existing ordinances with construction and commercial buildings and stuff like that.” Not to mention that the Airbnb website only identifies owners by first name and doesn’t provide an address or any personal contact information, making scofflaws difficult to track down.
Thomas keeps his place in compliance with the local nightly rental standards, but that doesn’t mean he’s above the ire of the local lodging establishment. “I’ve had interesting discussions with some of the innkeepers in town,” he says. “They say, ‘This is my full-time livelihood and you Airbnb guys are affecting it.’ But I say, ‘I’m retired and this is my full-time livelihood and I don’t see the difference.’”
Thomas and his wife rent out what used to be a home office to help pay their daughter’s way through college. Many others rely on the rental income to cover mortgages and other expenses. In small towns, then, the conflict over Airbnb pits small-business owners against earnest local homeowners. For a disinterested party — like a state or municipal government — it’s hard to pick sides.
Unlike seashore communities, Portland has only recently become a popular seasonal destination, and the locals are still getting used to neighboring homes occupied sporadically and tenants rotating in and out. So the terms of debate over Airbnb aren’t the same as in towns like Camden — the argument is more about neighborhood character and livability than on fair competition.
“It’s transforming places,” says Anne Pringle, the former city mayor and current president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association. “That’s the concern people have here, especially with the housing shortage on the peninsula.”
Residents worry about whole houses turning exclusively into vacation rentals and previously long-term apartments becoming vacation units. Especially troubling for Portlanders is how Airbnb properties have clustered in certain residential neighborhoods — especially the West End and Munjoy Hill — with easy access to the dining and shopping that tourists want.
“If you have a high concentration of these things, you lose stability in the neighborhood because of the constant turnover,” Pringle says. “And because a lot of it’s seasonal, you end up with homes that are dark at night for a good part of the year if they’re only used as rental property.”
Such concerns are part of the broader pushback against Airbnb in cities across the country, but in Maine, there’s yet another consideration. Some corners of the state, USM’s Michaud-Stutzman says, just don’t have the tourism traffic to support traditional hotels and inns. In-home stays — facilitated by the Internet — can fill the void. “It gives Airbnb owners access to tourism money and travelers access to parts of Maine where they wouldn’t venture otherwise,” she says.
Note the high concentration of Airbnb properties around industry-deprived Millinocket, where travelers en route to Baxter State Park have limited overnight options. With visitors needing lodging and locals needing new income sources, the situation doesn’t exactly beg fixing.
That Airbnb impacts different areas in different ways is more reason for the state to tread lightly with blanket regulations. The trick, says Michaud-Stutzman, is calibrating rules to local circumstances. Communities need to identify pros and cons and strike a balance. “As with most things,” she adds, “there’s going to be a little of both.”
While most Maine towns are only starting to talk about how to approach the Airbnb issue, Rockland recently enacted regulations with the service specifically in mind.
“We’re a little ahead of the game,” says John Root, the city’s code enforcement officer of 21 years, who pushed for ground rules. The idea, he says, isn’t to quash Airbnb rentals but to preserve neighborhood character and ensure consumer safety.
The resulting five-page, single-spaced tract of legalese is no light read. There’s a confusing division of short-term rentals into three subcategories with varying levels of review and inspection. Certain other requirements are simpler: as of November, owners need annual permits, and tents, trailers, sheds, and yurts — which proliferate around Airbnb — are no-goes in Rockland.
As for enforcement, Root says, “We’ve had our office assistant trained by somebody who’s been through [the process of tracking Airbnb properties] and knows where they are.”
And who is this incognito sleuth?
“Doesn’t really matter,” he says coyly. Just someone who knows “the ins and outs of how to find out where a house is that’s on Airbnb.”
Did he bring in outside expertise?
“No,” he concedes, “it’s somebody who runs a B&B and has been tracking Airbnb for years.”
So even Rockland’s attempt at equitable regulation and enforcement has roots in some deeper shades of contention. But the new rules could nonetheless prove a useful test case to see if owners will follow them, if the town can track down violators, and if any owners will find the regulation and licensing too onerous to keep doing business.
If Rockland strikes the right balance, it might become a model worth emulating — and help other small towns get back to their cheery, tourism-happy ways.