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Editorial: Regulations on accommodations should be reviewed, then applied even-handedly

When it comes to Airbnb and the City of Buffalo (or, any municipality), lawmakers should devise regulations that apply both to those hosts and to traditional businesses, such as bed and breakfasts.

It’s the same principle that should apply to Uber, Lyft and other disruptive economies.

First, though, it’s important to ensure that the rules already in place actually make sense. Some regulations have been on the books since the beginning of time and need to be revoked or revised.
Once the regulatory housekeeping is finished, the result should be fair to all: those operating under traditional formats, and anyone in the new “gig” economy.

The most recent story circles back to Airbnb, the at-home business that allows property owners (and some renters, hopefully who have gotten permission) to rent out rooms, flats, condos and houses. This is another app-driven, computer-screen accessing model that allows those seeking accommodation to find those willing to give it – at a price, but with relative ease in the internet age.
None of that is bad. Except when it is.

Michael and Lisa Parks are what one might consider traditionalists. They decided to open a bed and breakfast on Linwood Avenue two years ago. Going about it in the traditional way – and by law – the city sent an inspector and they were required to get a city license and a zoning variance. They also had to upgrade their building to meet fire codes.

Imagine their consternation at the 300 or more homes in the Buffalo area rented out online through Airbnb. Who could blame them?

The Parks’ business, Oscar’s Bed & Breakfast, is regulated by the city, and collects taxes. These new kids on the block – Airbnbs – are not regulated and do not necessarily collect taxes, according to Michael Parks. He simply wants an even playing field.

It is not too much to ask.

Enter the Buffalo Common Council, which is finally, after some complaints from disgruntled Airbnb customers, giving the issues due attention. Among the complaints: one renter found renting an attic room (locked at night) was not the ideal Allentown experience. Another long-term renter was uneasy about all of the strangers passing in and out on the other side of her double.

Louis J. Petrucci, assistant director of Permit & Inspection Services for the city, gave the Council’s Legislation Committee an overview. He also suggested that many of the Airbnbs in the city fall under Buffalo’s lodging house law and should be licensed and regulated as such.

It should be one thing for someone to rent out a room or entire pad for all of 10 days of the year. But it’s another when it is more business than spare change. City officials should distinguish between the two.

An Airbnb spokesman said the industry supports “common sense” efforts in regulating Airbnb homes and collecting taxes from hosts. The company has formal tax agreements with many other municipalities.

Working together, both company and city officials must come to agreement on how best to regulate another industry that sprang from technology and is here to stay.

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