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City Council bill aims to rein in elusive Airbnb hosts

Philly would treat them as businesses and require them to get commercial activity licenses as well as proposed limited lodging operator licenses for $150 per year.

Neighbors on Wharton Street in South Philadelphia have complained about parties at a property rented out as an Airbnb.
Neighbors on Wharton Street in South Philadelphia have complained about parties at a property rented out as an Airbnb.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Neighbors on the 800 block of Wharton Street in South Philadelphia describe packed weekend parties at an Airbnb on their street, where over the summer and into the winter guests regularly spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets. Doors slammed. Guests left behind empty bottles and vomit. Music, yelling, and honking sometimes didn’t fall quiet until 4 a.m.

The owner of the property rents out the rowhouse to tenants, not to guests of the short-term rental company. The property is one of nearly 100 Airbnbs that Pad Suites, a management company, says it lists in four cities. The owner of the home declined to comment, and is talking to a lawyer.

A City Council bill introduced this month would end complicated arrangements like this. It would require those who offer their primary residences as short-term rentals to be either owners of the properties or tenants who have written permission from the owner to profit from the use of the properties by others. The city would treat them as businesses and require them to get free commercial activity licenses as well as proposed limited lodging operator licenses for $150 per year. City officials adapted the legislation from similar rules in New York and Boston.

The legislation calls for licenses even if residents rent out their homes for only a few weekends a year. Current city law requires permits for those renting out homes for more than 90 days in a year. Some operators purposefully stay under the threshold to avoid the regulations. If the bill passes, everyone — owners and tenants — who rents a home also has to use licensed booking agents and adhere to local zoning requirements.

» READ MORE: How a scammer used Airbnb to lease out a Philly apartment he didn’t even own

City officials and police receive complaints from people living in neighborhoods throughout the city about guests hosting parties that disturb quiet residential streets. Neighbors have reported fights, drug deals, and shootings at sites of short-term rentals.

Gun shots rang out at one rental along Wood Street just outside Old City at the end of May. The house, which had been listed on Airbnb for a couple of years, “unbeknownst to the rest of us was starting to become a party hub,” said Alice Reyes, vice president of Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, the registered community organization that covers the area from the Ben Franklin Bridge to Callowhill Street and from I-95 to North Sixth Street.

“The neighbor whose house butts up against this house, they moved out for six months, because they couldn’t take it anymore,” Reyes said. The owner of the Airbnb property sold the property, but several other party houses in the area are still listed on the platform.

One of the main problems with short-term rentals is that no one knows how to contact the people who are renting out the property, said City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who introduced the bill. Requiring licenses lets the city know who is operating rentals and whom to contact if there’s an issue, he said.

“We believe by doing this we will have more control over the bad operators,” said Squilla, adding that he’s not trying to get rid of Airbnbs. “We want to make sure they’re not negatively impacting the communities they’re in.”

In a statement, an Airbnb spokesperson said the company is reviewing the proposed legislation and “look[s] forward to working with the city to ensure short-term rentals can be an important part of Philadelphia’s post-pandemic recovery.”

A year ago, Airbnb started procedures to verify listings. In August, the company announced a global ban on parties. In November alone, the platform suspended or removed dozens of listings in Philadelphia for violating party policies.

In addition to notifying Airbnb, neighbors say they call the police, watch as officers tell the occupants to keep it down, and see parties continue once officers leave. Enforcement of Squilla’s legislation would be key, said the leaders of the Franklin Bridge North Association.

“It’s going to be up to the residents to keep an eye and ear open and document and facilitate that process with the city,” Reyes said. “We just hope the city responds to that.”

» READ MORE: South Jersey town approves measure to ban Airbnbs after complaints of wild parties at Muhammad Ali’s former mansion

The landlord association Hapco Philadelphia is working on a lease template for property owners that explicitly states that tenants don’t have the right to rent out their units without their landlords’ permission, said Paul Cohen, the association’s attorney. Cohen said he has never seen a lease that allows tenants to use their homes this way. When leases don’t mention renting out the unit at all, “you’re in the gray area” and open to disputes, he said.

Rue Landau, a housing-law professor at Temple Law School and former executive director of the city’s Fair Housing Commission, said she sees the value in making sure operators of housing are licensed.

“Just like rental housing, it’s a good idea for the City of Philadelphia to create a license for limited lodging operators, so that the city knows who’s operating these businesses and renting these properties in case of an emergency or to have direct contact with the business operators,” she said.

Robert Gurmankin, president of Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, said he hopes further regulation of Airbnbs can provide relief to neighbors. Over the winter, rowdy gatherings in his neighborhood have died down.

But, he said, “we’re concerned we’ll have the same issue come spring.”