Nearly a year and a half after Collingswood began cracking down on short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb and HomeAway, the South Jersey borough has finally drafted an ordinance aimed at regulating the rental properties.
The proposed legislation, which was posted on the borough’s website this month, marks Collingswood’s first attempt to legalize short-term rentals since last year, when public outcry emerged after local officials began shutting listings down. In late 2017 and early 2018, Collingswood zoning officials sent at least four cease-and-desist letters to short-term rental hosts, drawing ire from residents who criticized officials’ quick actions without having a formal policy on the books.
Yet Collingswood’s draft ordinance — which is 15 pages long and includes a lengthy list of requirements — has not satisfied many of those residents who favor short-term rentals, either. In the roughly two weeks since Collingswood’s three commissioners published the draft for public feedback, some residents have, in interviews and on social media, called it “nonsensical” and “onerous" and criticized the ordinance as being so restrictive that it would make hosting too difficult.
Others who object to having short-term rentals in their neighborhood, meanwhile, have praised the borough’s proposal — even as other residents have urged for a total ban.
The debate that Collingswood is experiencing underscores the difficulty that towns across the country have faced when trying to regulate short-term rentals in the ever-expanding sharing economy. From Santa Monica to Miami, officials have attempted to carve out regulations to scale back home-sharing platforms, only to face resistance from residents who operate them — or the companies behind the platforms themselves.
Two-square-mile Collingswood, which has a population of roughly 14,000, does not currently face the same issues that major cities such as Paris and New York City have with home-sharing. Many of these larger, denser cities have accused companies, including Airbnb and HomeAway (which owns VRBO), of putting pressure on housing affordability, with New York City’s Controller’s office, for example, publishing a report last year asserting that Airbnb caused renters citywide to pay an extra $616 million in total additional rent in 2016.
Airbnb, in response, called the report “deeply flawed," saying that it “wrongly targeted middle-class New Yorkers who share their homes on Airbnb.”
In small towns such as Collingswood, short-term rentals currently present a far greater threat to quality of life than to housing affordability, according to residents and officials who oppose the idea. Collingswood, though just seven miles from Philadelphia’s City Hall, is the kind of place where picturesque homes are walking distance from boutiques and galleries, and where residents bump into neighbors on Saturdays at the farmers’ market. Short-term rentals, critics in Collingswood have said, add uncertainty about who is next door and exacerbate parking problems, and would create public safety concerns if an emergency were to occur.
“This has been decades of work to make this a place where you would choose to live,” said Joan Leonard, one of Collingswood’s three borough commissioners. “... I don’t want to be a neighborhood of hotels and boarding houses. I think that represents where we used to be, and I don’t want it to be our future.”
Leonard, an elected Collingswood official for two decades, called the borough’s ordinance “the most restrictive that we could come up with," while still allowing short-term rentals to operate. The ordinance could potentially be altered before it is formally introduced this spring.
No major hotel companies operate inside Collingswood.
Currently, Collingswood’s draft would restrict home-sharing hosts from renting their properties for more than 24 days a year. Renters would have to stay for a minimum of three days but no more than 14 days. In addition, all short-term rental units would have to be registered with the borough annually, have designated parking, and have hardwired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors if the property were rented while the owner was not home.
Before each rental, the property owner would have to inform the fire department of the number of tenants who would be inside, as well as their ages. The name, address, and phone number of the person who rented the property would have to be included.
Further, Collingswood residents would be eligible to list their properties on a site such as Airbnb or FlipKey only if the home were a single-family detached dwelling — meaning that duplexes or multifamily buildings would be excluded. Homeowners would have to be current on taxes. Each short-term unit would have to be inspected annually by agencies authorized by the borough, with homeowners paying the inspection fee.
The ordinance also would give borough officials, accompanied by medical or emergency responders, the right to enter and inspect short-term units between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., with or without notice to the landlord, if officials were notified that the property was in violation.
Some Collingswood residents who have operated short-term rentals say the new regulations would put them out of business.
“All the rules and regulations that they want ... would make it nonsensical for everyone to even do it,” said 67-year-old Collingswood resident Suzanne Cloud, who rented her house on Airbnb for 4½ years before receiving a cease-and-desist letter in 2017 after a neighbor complained.
“Limiting the amount of days you can rent to 24 days a year wouldn’t help anyone pay their taxes here,” Cloud continued. “I would be totally disqualified because I don’t live in a single-family home — I live in a twin.”
For Cloud, who began renting three rooms in her 1,600-square-foot twin property in 2014 — while still living there — Airbnb provided an opportunity for extra income and community after her husband died and their sons moved out. She hosted medical students on rotation for a month at a time at Camden’s Cooper University Hospital and former residents returning to see friends. Together, it earned her as much as $10,000 a year — money she said she used to pay her living expenses.
According to June 2018 data provided by Airbnb, Collingswood had 20 Airbnb hosts, who rented to 610 guests, in 2017. The typical Collingswood host made $1,700 a year, Airbnb said, and rented for an average of six nights a month. About a quarter of all hosts were seniors.
Airbnb could not provide updated figures. VRBO, one of Airbnb’s largest competitors, did not respond to a request for comment.
Not all residents have embraced short-term rentals. Collingswood resident Michelle Quigley, in contrast, cautioned local officials and residents to carefully examine “the experiences other cities and towns have had once allowing Airbnb-type short-term rentals in their communities.”
“There’s a completely natural and understandable tendency to look at the Airbnb issue in Collingswood in terms of wanting to support our neighbors who are just trying to make ends meet,” Quigley said. “... but our commissioners and residents really need to look at the bigger picture.”
“Additional short-term rental units ... create additional safety concerns and workload for fire, police, and administrative personnel: More policing and inspections, more nuisance and parking complaints, more paperwork overall for town administrators," Quigley said.
In a statement, an Airbnb spokesperson said the company is “deeply concerned" that Collingswood’s regulations will not strike a balance that “addresses local concerns and protects the rights of local hosts to open their doors to visitors.”
“We have expressed our concerns to Collingswood officials,” the statement continued, “and provided guidance on regulations that would support their regulatory goals while also supporting hosts.”
In towns both big and small, Airbnb has successfully lobbied officials to craft regulations. Philadelphia, for example, became the largest U.S. city to legalize Airbnb when it did so in 2015, with legislation that authorizes rentals for up to 180 days a year. Spafford, N.Y., meanwhile, a 1,700-person town near the Finger Lakes, allowed short-term rentals for 120 days annually.
Others have tried banning short-term rentals or severely limiting them, only to spend months or even years fighting Airbnb, the $31 billion Silicon Valley giant. Airbnb has sued Boston, Miami Beach, and Santa Monica, Calif., over policies it viewed as too restrictive, with varying degrees of success. Earlier this month, a U.S. court of appeals sided with Santa Monica, which requires that primary residents be present when renting out their homes for fewer than 30 days.
For now, Collingswood officials say they are collecting feedback and will formally introduce the ordinance "when we feel we have a workable plan,” said Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, who has been credited for transforming the borough by launching a program that provided residents with resources to convert duplex and triplexes back into single-family homes.