A Portland City Council subcommittee is poised to vote Thursday on tightening the rules covering short-term rentals, which communities throughout Maine and the U.S. have struggled to regulate as they grow in popularity.

The Housing Committee will hold a public hearing on a slew of proposals from councilors and city staff that seek to rein in the number of short-term rentals – a room, apartment or single-family home being rented for less than 30 days – where the owner or tenant does not live.

The proliferation of non-owner-occupied rentals has prompted some residents, especially those on Munjoy Hill, to complain that property owners are essentially running hotels in a residential neighborhood, shrinking the affordable housing stock and eroding the quality of life. Advocates, however, argue that short-term rentals advertised on online home-sharing services such as Airbnb allow people to generate income to stay in their homes and give visitors a more local experience.

The impending committee action comes after a new analysis by city staff shows that non-owner-occupied units have been drastically undercounted.

The original short-term rental rules passed by the council last year set a 300-unit cap on the number of non-owner-occupied units on the mainland. When the program was implemented, however, staff allowed people living in a building to register other apartments in the same building as owner-occupied, and therefore not count toward the limit.

Staff has since conducted more research and concluded that instead of 125 non-owner-occupied units, there are as many as 320 – more than the 300-unit cap, according to a memo from Michael Russell, the city’s director of permitting and inspections.

Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Kimberly Cook are offering a series of changes to the regulations to clarify that only units in which the owner or tenant lives can be considered owner-occupied. However, the units that are currently misclassified will be grandfathered until they either change owners or no longer register as a short-term rental.

“We’ve essentially allowed a commercial use in residential zones,” Cook said. “I think it’s important that we get back to a place that limits the number of units that are coming out of our long-term housing stock and limits the impact in residential neighborhoods.”

The committee vote on the new regulations is a recommendation to the full council, which will have the final say.

Meanwhile, Strimling said he no longer is proposing substantial increases – as much as 400 percent in some cases – in registration fees as a way to deter short-term rentals. That additional funding was intended to capitalize the city’s housing trust fund, which is used to build affordable housing. But Strimling said he is now proposing a $7 million bond to fund those efforts.

“I don’t want to be relying on something that is taking housing off the market to feed the housing trust,” Strimling said.

City Councilor Belinda Ray also is proposing amendments that seek to address some of the same issues. However, she also wants to make it harder for property management firms to take over the short-term rental market. Her amendment would subject short-term property managers to the same five-unit cap as property owners and tenants, regardless of who registers the unit.

Kenneth Thomas, of the short-term rental advocacy group Share Portland, said the group has concerns about the process the city is using to change the ordinance. He favors a roundtable discussion with more back-and-forth between stakeholders.

“We don’t have a specific complaint or issue, and we’re not going to support any of these things or not support any of those things mentioned, because that process hasn’t happened,” Thomas said. “We’re going to advocate for a more collaborative approach, not something that gets passed down in an 18-page document.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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