Airbnb visits in Buffalo Niagara are growing sharply, but most communities in the area had no way of tracking who and where the hosts are and couldn't get into the homes to check for safety issues.
Now, after months of collaborating, Buffalo and Amherst have settled on new home-sharing regulations that they hope could set a standard for smaller towns, villages and cities in the area.
Under the new rules, hosts must register their properties, undergo safety and code inspections and pay fees meant to cover the cost of overseeing the registry and inspections. The Amherst Town Board approved the regulations earlier this month, and the Buffalo Common Council could vote on its version as soon as Tuesday.
"The purpose of this is to have the properties inspected to make sure when people are staying at an Airbnb that the conditions are safe," said Joel P. Feroleto, who represents the Common Council's Delaware District.
Airbnb fans point to the ease of using the services, the money travelers can save by staying in someone's home instead of a hotel and the extra cash hosts can make by listing their homes. But critics say hosts don't have to follow the same rules as hotels, busy Airbnb homes aren't always a good fit for a residential neighborhood and a few high-profile cases raise serious safety concerns.
The officials who collaborated in drafting the rules in Amherst and Buffalo say they bring some order to the unregulated Airbnb system and help protect the interests of hosts, guests and neighbors.
Not everyone's happy. Airbnb representatives and local hosts say they welcome reasonable regulations but complain these rules put too much of a burden on the hosts. They say the new rules were rushed through without enough of their input.
"Most of the hosts, they want to do everything legally, they want to do everything aboveboard," said Rupinder Jatana, who rents out the third floor of her Parkside home and is a leading member of the organization that represents the interests of area Airbnb hosts.
Bookings through Airbnb, the most popular home-sharing service, are on the rise.
Hosts in Erie County saw total guest arrivals increase by 55 percent from 2017 to 2018, from 50,600 to 78,500, while their counterparts in Niagara County saw an increase of 71 percent those years, from 21,200 to 36,300, according to the company. The Airbnb website showed just over 300 listings in Buffalo on Friday.
People use Airbnb's site to find lodging when they travel, often at a lower rate than if they'd stayed at a hotel, while hosts make money by renting out part or all of their homes.
Hotel operators argue hosts in most communities aren't subjected to the same rules and regulations and don't have to pay a bed tax. Some residents say too many Airbnbs can upend a neighborhood of owner-occupied, single-family homes.
And some elected officials highlight the handful of incidents where guests have run into, or caused, trouble.
Feroleto pointed to an Airbnb guest who rented a third-floor room in Allentown where the door locked from the outside, trapping her for hours. The city also has seen a rise in party promoters hosting large gatherings at Airbnb properties.
"Obviously the world's always changing. And whether it's ride-sharing or something like this, we're more than welcoming, we want to see it take place in the City of Buffalo," said Christopher P. Scanlon, the Common Council's South District member. "But we have to ensure that, not only the renters are safe, but also that the surrounding community – their quality of life isn't disturbed."
Feroleto, Scanlon and Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa led the discussions and said they talked to Airbnb hosts and the company itself as they drafted the new rules.
New fees, inspections
The rules require Airbnb hosts to register their homes with the town or city. They also allow renters who have their landlord's permission to register a home share. Out-of-town owners would have to provide contact information for a local agent.
Would-be hosts in both communities would pay an up-front fee of $250 if the home is owner-occupied and $500 if it is not.
Hosts would wait for an inspection to make sure there are no safety or code violations, such as lead paint or missing smoke detectors.
"If we license them we have more teeth," said James Comerford Jr., commissioner of Buffalo's Department of Permit & Inspection Services.
A short-term rental certificate would be good for one year in either community. Hosts would have to renew their certificate after a year and pay an additional fee – $250 or $500 in Amherst or $75 or $150 in Buffalo, depending on whether the home is occupied. Violations could lead to fines, certificate suspensions or revocation.
"It locks in a person's right to be able to short-term rent their property," Kulpa said. "Yes, there's fees associated with that, but those aren't arduous. They're really meant to cover the cost of our inspections."
Formally recognizing Airbnb listings as overnight lodging puts the region on the path to collecting a bed tax, said Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, whose members include hotel operators.
"I think it's the first step in many steps to come, but it's at least a good starting point for us now," Kaler said.
The rules for Buffalo and Amherst don't include the payment of bed taxes. Erie County still is weighing whether to collect the taxes from Airbnb properties, but officials haven't acted yet, said Peter Anderson, a spokesman for County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Will hosts comply with the new rules? Town and city officials say they believe they will. They say hosts want a system in place that helps keep their guests safe.
In Niagara Falls, short-term rental permits are good for four years. People must apply for a permit from the city's Zoning Board of Appeals and then get a certificate of occupancy, Niagara Falls Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson said. Short-term rentals also are subject to the city's bed tax.
There are about 40 fully approved hosts in Niagara Falls and 60 awaiting the final go-ahead, Johnson said.
Jatana said the fees are too high and it's unreasonable to ask people to renew their registration every year. She also said the city appears to be "fear-mongering" and holding hosts responsible for the few cases of unruly tenant behavior.
"We want places to be safe," Jatana said. "We don't want a few bad apples that have unsafe situations to make it look bad for all of us, as we've seen happen."
Airbnb said it's unclear if renter hosts are covered under the regulations, arguing leaving them out would disproportionately affect low-income residents.
"While we have been in communication with Buffalo and Amherst as they have considered local regulations, we have concerns about how these onerous regulatory packages will hurt the local residents who rely on home sharing for extra income, as well as small businesses that benefit from visitors," Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy for Airbnb, said in a statement.
Hosts in Buffalo have raised concerns in recent days about the pending Airbnb legislation. Jatana said there's a good chance the Common Council could table the measure to allow for further changes and discussion with hosts.