- By Dan Veaner
Both the Town and Village of Lansing Planning Boards are considering new laws to regulate short-term rentals. Both boards have found that the issue is more complicated than initially thought, so the process of deciding how much regulation and how it could be enforced has been a slow one. This week Tompkins County Tourism Director Nick Helmholdt told the Town Planning Board about a monitoring program the County hopes to implement so that the County and its municipalities have access to more detailed information about Airbnb-style rentals within their borders.
"Our primary interest is in tax compliance, but we want to make sure that the data that we procure through this is accessible and available to the towns and villages and the city of Ithaca for other uses you may see with regard to whether it's code enforcement o other questions you have. I know the city of Ithaca is strongly interested in the questions relating to housing affordability," Helmholdt said.
The County is preparing a Request For Proposals (RFP) to be distributed to businesses that specialize in collecting such data. Helmholdt said he knows of two companies that are qualified to do the work, and once the RFP is distributed more may come forward.
"The type of data we would collect is about market performance, the number of number of units that are out there where they're located specific addresses of those units the prevailing rates they're charging and the amount of nights they're booking. Some of that data will be better than others, depending on how we're able to gather it. But we are pretty confident that we'll be able to pay for the service through the tax compliance alone that will result," he said.
Helmholdt explained that the County began charging room tax on short term rentals in the early '80s. That included bed & breakfasts as well as hotels. Five or ten years ago, depending on location Airbnb, VRVO and similar services gained in popularity. The County entered into an agreement with Airbnb that specified that Airbnb would collect the hotel room occupancy tax on behalf of its hosts. Since that time a number of the local municipalities like the Lansings have also expressed interest in short term rentals and their regulation.
"We've been thinking about this for a while, and we decided we wanted to learn a lot more about this segment. We've been preparing a request for proposals for a firm to do some data monitoring and analytics on short term rentals. What that really entails is having a program that surveils and monitors the short term rental websites, including Airbnb, VRVO and the like, on a daily basis to determine who is out there, who is currently listing properties for short term rental to gain a lot more insight about that market for our purposes of the County," Helmholdt said.
Helmholdt explained how it might work: "They have a piece of software that goes out and scans various different short term rental sites frequently. It'll basically run a search, just like if you were planning a vacation to go to Ithaca, it will look and pull up all those listings and we'll compare the result it got one day to the results it got the day before to see if things have changed, like the number of the calendars that are listed, or the rates that are listed. When a new listing pops up, then there's a human validation component to it for both of the firms that I'm aware of. The the firm will actually send that new listing to a actual human to look at and compare the data that's on the Airbnb listing to publicly available data, determining the exact address, what municipality it belongs in, and other features of the property. Once we have that validated information, then that's what's supplied to the County through a web portal. So there's both a computer element and a human element to how they're gathering information. The firms will not contact any of the hosts or any of the property owners. That's on the County, through publicly accessible records, through our assessment data and other other pieces of information."
"We have properties out there that are in the name of a trust, or the mailing address is a PO box. So going to the assessment records are public records in the clerk's office is not going to get you an owner, many times, nor a mailing address nor a email address," said Planning Board member Al Fiorille.
"Well,if the property is clearly out of compliance with our hotel tax law, we will have other ways to bring them into compliance," Helmholdt replied.
"The other question is what about the properties that are say advertise in the shopper or Craig's List, or have residents that have rented it every the same week, every year for the last 10 years? How worried are you going to pick up those?" Fiorille asked.
Helmholdt answered, "If it's on Craigslist these services will scan Craigslist. If it's on a print advertisement, like the Shopper we're not going to be able to catch that. Or if it's what we'd call 'market leakage', where somebody has an interpersonal relationship with somebody and they rent, that's that's unfortunately probably beyond the scope of this RFP. We're not going to be able to detect those."
He was also asked about problems that arise such as one that came up in the Village last year in which neighbors complained about loud, unregulated parties, excessive noise, and too much light. Such issues are within the jurisdiction of the County Sheriff's office, but even the Sheriff has limits on what he can do in such situations, especially if the municipalities don't actually have laws deputies can enforce.
"We're definitely aware that there are issues good neighbor issues between some hosts and the people who live near them, whether it's parking noise, litter, or you name it. Within the County they are not topics that we regulate," Helmholdt said. "That's why we want to make sure that the data that we do get through this is available to the towns and villages. Because those are within your code enforcement scope. So if you need to track down or determine that somebody is out of compliance with your short term rental policy or other other ordinances you'll have that information available."
Both Planning Boards are continuing to consider what regulations might be appropriate for the Town and the Village.