One house had a closet ripped out to make room for a DJ station. Others had raucous rooftop parties until the wee hours of the morning, keeping the neighbors awake with loud music and fireworks, leaving trash and bottles of booze in their wake. Another was the site of a nonfatal shooting, with neighbors tracing the explosive fight to a dispute with party guests.
The houses, rented out on Airbnb, are seen by many residents as a blight on their neighborhood, causing noise issues, excessive litter, and — in the worst cases — sometimes violent and unruly behavior.
In an effort to stem the tide of unauthorized house parties, Philadelphia City Council passed a bill that will take effect in April and will require property owners who rent their homes through Airbnb and other rental marketplace apps to get short-term rental licenses. The bill will work alongside an Airbnb policy in place since summer 2020 that blocks or redirects people under 25 who attempt to book houses.
While some city officials and residents welcome these policies, others see it as another obstacle for local businesses that thrive off of tourism and for people who rely on short-term rentals for income, particularly during the pandemic.
According to proprietary data released last week, Airbnb blocked or redirected around 12,500 people under 25 from booking Philadelphia houses in 2021, a system they say is geared toward stopping parties. Anyone under 25 without enough positive reviews on Airbnb is unable to book an entire household in their area.
In neighboring New Jersey, the system blocked or redirected approximately 10,000 people from doing the same last year.
The “anti-party system,” as Airbnb calls it, came as a response to reports from neighbors of rental homes that consistently had noise or nuisance complaints, said Ben Breit, an Airbnb spokesperson. While Airbnb has a forum for neighbors to report issues, the system was meant to prevent these “problem houses” from continuing to operate.
“With a party house we’re talking about a home where we’re getting calls weekend after weekend where it just appears to be a chronic problem with the actual property itself,” said Breit. “Maybe the host is allowing parties or maybe the host isn’t doing enough to stop them.”
Kevin Devine, a Point Breeze resident, said he’s heard loud music coming right into his bedroom on many late nights and early mornings. A house directly across from his would have rooftop parties that lined up with his room.
“They would have parties and since the house has a roof deck, the 2 a.m. blasting music would stream directly into my third-floor master bedroom,” said Devine. “One party must have had 100 to 150 people, Solo cups, beer cans, and bottles being thrown everywhere littering the alley.”
Devine reported the address to Airbnb, but was told it wasn’t one of their listed properties. Devine then found the owner, who told him directly he was renting via Airbnb.
Nina Smithe and her partner dealt with similar issues in Point Breeze, when they moved into their rental home in October 2020.
“We didn’t have any issues really until late spring and all summer, when people started renting out the home for parties,” Smithe said. “Almost every other weekend we were woken up to screaming and raging from the roof deck and even out front at 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. Sometimes fireworks. We noticed trash being left on our side that consisted of old balloons and massive amounts of empty booze containers.”
Like Devine, Smithe had trouble getting in touch with the property owner and Airbnb.
The city does not currently have data on issues with short-term rentals, said Karen Guss, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.
It was a lack of accountability and regulation coupled with resident reports of noise and nuisance issues at these homes that led City Councilmember Mark Squilla to introduce legislation last February.
“Starting about three years ago, we started getting more and more complaints about nuisance properties and at the time not realizing that they were short-term rentals,” said Squilla. “If they are a nuisance, how would we go about citing them? We realized we had nothing that would be able to remove them from the short-term market.”
The bill, which passed in June, will require those who offer their primary residences as short-term rentals to own the properties or have written permission from the owner. The properties will be treated as businesses by the city, and will be required to get free commercial activity licenses as well as proposed limited lodging operator licenses for $150 per year.
Under the new measure, anyone who rents a home also must use licensed booking agents and adhere to local zoning requirements. If a property owner opts not to acquire the license, they can still use the property for long-term rentals, said Squilla.
For some residents, the measure is just another mark against city residents who have taken to short-term rentals as alternate income.
Mitchell Nase, a Point Breeze resident, said party homes are the exception, and most Airbnbs aren’t a problem.
“Making new laws and placing stricter requirements for Airbnb businesses in the city clearly benefits hotels and hurts small landlords or Airbnb managers,” Nase said. “Those who are hosting the parties are not going to follow the regulations anyway, so it won’t actually solve the problem, but it will make it harder for people who do follow the rules to stay in business.”
Airbnb’s system is meant to find and filter out the proverbial bad apples, said Breit.
“You can make rules all day long but we’re obviously realistic that even if the overwhelming majority of our guests are good people who are traveling for the right reasons — and they absolutely are — it’s those needles in the haystack with those who don’t care about the rules and seek to circumvent them, that we need to focus on,” said Breit.
With just months before the city’s measures take effect and the busy summer season, Squilla assured residents that the policy was in place for the right reasons.
“This is not something to shut down a market,” Squilla said. “It’s just saying, ‘You have to comply with regulations being put in place.’ ”