James Bruni in the apartment he rents out in the building he owns on Park Street in Portland. Bruni was out of the country when the city sent him a letter to comply with its 2017 short-term rental ordinance. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Two months into an enforcement push from City Hall, a picture of Portland’s short-term rental market is coming into focus.

The city estimates that three out of four rental units in Portland offered for a night or a few days on sites like Airbnb are registered with the city, meaning about 500 units now comply with rules that took effect in January.

More than a third of the units were registered after the city began sending notices to violators in March.

The apartment building that James Bruni owns on Park Street. Bruni says his violation notice was the first he heard about the new city regulations. He says the city should have done more to tell people. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“Overall, we have a lot more compliance than non-compliance,” said Michael Russell, director of Portland’s permitting and inspections department. “Just over four months into it and to have 75 percent compliance. I’m pretty pleased.”

The City Council last year imposed regulations on short-term rentals to address concerns that the units were taking up housing and creating neighborhood problems amid the rapid growth of the home-sharing industry. Roughly 282,000 people stayed in Airbnb listings in Maine in 2017, a 62 percent increase from the year before, the company said.

Portland’s regulations require everyone who rents their home or apartment for fewer than 30 days to register with the city, pay an annual fee and submit to inspections. The ordinance was designed to allow those living in their homes to rent them out part of the year while also giving building owners the ability to rent units they don’t live in. The number of those “non-owner occupied” units is capped at 300.

Registering one unit in Portland costs $100, with higher fees for multiple units in the same building. In late April, the city said $118,000 had been paid in short-term rental fees so far this year.

As of this week, 494 units in Portland were registered. Of those, 103 were non-owner occupied and only 13 were being managed by a tenant.

Portland has 4,239 registered long-term rental properties.

“We just want a valid list of who is currently renting and not renting,” Russell said.

Taking stock of the city’s short-term rentals has involved a months-long crackdown on violators. Late last year, Portland hired Host Compliance, a San Francisco company that monitors online services like Airbnb, VRBO and Homeaway to find listings working against local rules.

SENDING OUT NOTICES

Since early March, Portland has sent 313 non-compliance notices to operators and given them 30 days to register their units. Each notice includes a copy of the online listing. The overwhelming majority were on Airbnb, according to a review of city records.

Since the first notices went out on March 9, operators have registered 185 units, more than a third of total registrations.

Initial letters were followed with formal violation notices. About 103 violations have been delivered since April 25, giving operators another 30 days before a minimum $100 a day fines kick in.

Most of those notices were sent to Portland addresses, but they also went to operators living in California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, and one address in Lucerne, Switzerland.

James Bruni was annoyed to find the violation notice in his mailbox two weeks ago.

Bruni rents a one-bedroom apartment in his Park Street home for about $100 a night, according to his Airbnb listing. The apartment was booked every weekend this winter, Bruni said.

He was out of the country when the first letter from the city arrived in March. The violation notice was the first time he heard about the new regulations and the city should have done more to tell people about the rules, he said.

“I was unaware. I knew they were talking about it, but it is not up to me to read a local newspaper to know what the city regulations are,” he said. “They never get anything right and this is one more example of that.”

Maple Razsa, who rents his Deering Street home on Airbnb when he is out of town, also was surprised to discover he was breaking city rules.

“I didn’t realize that as such an occasional renter I was required to register,” Razsa said. There is still confusion about short-term rentals, despite public debate about the issue, he added.

“I guess I’m living proof of that,” Razsa said. “Given safety concerns and how prominent these rentals are, I think it is reasonable to register them.”

INFREQUENT RENTINGS

The violation notice was a shock to owners like Mary Roy who have listed their properties online but haven’t rented them, or have done so only occasionally.

Roy said she rented her North Street home on Airbnb only once.

“I just tried it for one weekend, it didn’t work out very well,” she said.

She stopped renting her house, but never deleted the Airbnb listing, so she was sent a violation along with everyone else.

“I can prove to them I haven’t rented the house out,” Roy said. “I’m not really as much of an offender as they think I am.”

The registration push has uncovered many people in Roy’s position, Russell said. As long as those people delete their listing they won’t be penalized, he said.

While the city is impressed with its progress to date, there are still about 230 active short-term rentals that are not registered and about 200 more that officials suspect are short-term rentals but haven’t been able to prove it.

The city has done its best to explain the rules, Russell added.

“Of course we could always do more, at some point it is their responsibility to communicate with us too.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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