Before Michael and Lisa Parks could open their bed-and-breakfast on Linwood Avenue two years ago, the city sent over an inspector, they were required to get a city license and a zoning variance and they had to upgrade their building to meet fire codes, Michael Parks said.
Contrast his situation, he said, with the 300 or more homes in the Buffalo area rented out online through Airbnb.
While Parks’ business – known as Oscar's Bed & Breakfast – is regulated by the city, and collects taxes, these Airbnbs aren’t regulated or necessarily collecting taxes, he said.
That is not fair, Parks said, He doesn’t object to his bed-and-breakfast being regulated and taxed, but he thinks Airbnb businesses should be treated the same way.
“We are seeing a growing number of Buffalo homes advertising on Airbnb, doing the exact same thing we do, yet most are flying under the radar in terms of licensing, or permits, of collecting taxes,” Parks said. “It puts us at a disadvantage.”
His position is garnering support from city lawmakers.
After Parks recently brought his concerns to the Common Council, Louis J. Petrucci, assistant director of Permit & Inspection Services for the city, told the Council’s Legislation Committee that complaints against Airbnb rentals in Buffalo are on the increase.
“We’ve had an uptick of complaints on Airbnb,” Petrucci said.
One example, he said, involved an Airbnb customer renting an attic room in Allentown.
“They were locked in the attic at night,” Petrucci said. “They were concerned.”
In another case, an Airbnb apartment in South Buffalo was advertised as “close to Lake Erie.”
The apartment was one of two in a double. The tenants in the other apartment in the house were concerned about constantly having people they didn’t know living in the other apartment.
“She had concerns, not knowing who she was sharing the house with,” Petrucci said of the year-round tenant in the building.
Petrucci said he believes many of the Airbnbs in the city fall under Buffalo’s lodging house law and should be licensed and regulated as such.
But Petrucci said the city does not know how many Airbnbs are in Buffalo. His department only inspects them when receiving a complaint.
What’s more, the lodging house law only covers instances when three or more persons are renting sleeping accommodations in a house, an attorney from the city law department said.
“If two or less, it’s not a lodging house,” said Lauren Howard, assistant corporation counsel.
Several Council members suggested the city may need further regulations to cover Airbnbs.
“They should be regulated,” Fillmore Council David A. Franczyk said of the Airbnb rentals. “They need to follow the rules for safety.”
Council President Darius G. Pridgen agreed.
"We are not turning against the industry," he said, referring to Airbnb, "but we have to be fair."
Other cities are facing similar situations with Airbnb, Petrucci said, and he suggested Buffalo review what those cities are doing.
A spokesman for Airbnb said the industry supports “common sense” efforts to regulate Airbnb homes and to collect taxes from hosts.
Airbnb already has formal tax agreements with many other municipalities, similar to what could be done in Buffalo and Erie County, spokesman Peter Schottenfels said.
“We are eager to work with Erie County and the City of Buffalo to craft common sense policies and to collect and remit taxes on our hosts’ behalf,” Schottenfels said. “We have signed tax agreements with over 220 municipalities and states worldwide, including nine counties in the Empire State.
“Public safety is our top priority,” he added.