Auburn considers ordinance to regulate Airbnb home-sharing services

Homes throughout the region, such as this one in Sacramento, are part of the Airbnb network, but the city of Auburn is the first jurisdiction hereabout that is considering municipal regulations to govern facets of the business.
Homes throughout the region, such as this one in Sacramento, are part of the Airbnb network, but the city of Auburn is the first jurisdiction hereabout that is considering municipal regulations to govern facets of the business. jvillegas@sacbee.com

The city of Auburn is creating an ordinance that would regulate home-sharing operations like Airbnb – a popular platform on which residents rent private rooms for money – making it the first jurisdiction in the Sacramento region to attempt oversight of the budding industry.

Airbnb acts as an intermediary to connect travelers with locals who want to rent their homes for short-term stays. The 6-year-old San Francisco startup, which charges a fee for the service, has upended the highly regulated hotel business, essentially allowing anyone with an Internet connection and a spare bedroom to become a hotelier.

Auburn officials say the ordinance isn’t meant to stifle innovation, but rather to protect local residents and potential guests. Under current rules, Airbnb is technically illegal in the city, although officials have only enforced the law in two separate instances in which a yurt a tent-like outdoor structure and a converted office were being sold as hotel rooms.

“This is a growing industry,” said Auburn associate planner Lance Lowe. “Many jurisdictions throughout the state are looking at these ordinances.”

The issue has proved divisive in this quaint foothills community of 14,000 people. Some residents, like Bud Rietjens, are vehemently opposed to such rentals because they violate residential zoning restrictions and could bring parking and congestion issues to once-quiet neighborhoods.

“It’s like having motels,” said Rietjens, 73. “They’re affecting a portion of my property rights.”

The proposed Auburn ordinance calls for a $57 licensing fee, along with rules for parking and noise. It also requires homeowners to notify and seek approval from neighbors before establishing a short-term rental business. The ordinance must be approved by the city Planning Commission on Oct. 21 before it heads to the City Council.

Airbnb proprietors have criticized the proposal, saying that neighbors should mind their own business.

“Either it should be allowed or it shouldn’t be allowed,” said Amy Townley, who leases rooms on Airbnb. “One neighbor can stop it for me and not somebody else.”

If a neighbor objects to a room-share business, the owner has the option of appealing to the Planning Commission, which would cost $481.

Townley, 53, doesn’t rely on the rental income to survive, instead calling it her “spending money.” She started renting out rooms on Airbnb in June after using the service during a cross-country trip with her 21-year-old daughter.

“It made me never want to stay in a hotel or motel again,” she said. “We met interesting people that had great insights on their town and what to do. ... Can’t think of one negative.”

For $89 a night, Townley will give you her own bedroom in a 1939 downtown Auburn house. So far, she’s hosted six people, making roughly $700, she said.

Since Airbnb skirts traditional laws designed for hotels and motels, cities rarely collect occupancy taxes or inspect the private homes.

In a written statement specifically addressing the Auburn ordinance, Airbnb said, “We ask all hosts to follow their local rules and regulations. At the same time, we are working with communities around the world to create clear, progressive and fair rules for home sharing.”

As of last week, a search on Airbnb found 20 offerings in the greater Auburn area, most of them within the city limits. By comparison, the city of Sacramento had close to 100 rentals available. Neither the city nor Sacramento County have regulations against Airbnb-like services.

Randi Knott, government affairs director for the city of Sacramento, said Airbnb approached City Hall a few weeks ago to start a pilot program in which the service would remit transient occupancy taxes.

“It was a pleasant surprise,” Knott said.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation this month to regulate and limit rentals in the city, where housing rents are surging ever higher. The legislation must still be signed by Mayor Ed Lee.

In its current form, the Auburn ordinance seeks only to collect occupancy taxes for short-term rentals containing three or more units.

Auburn officials relied on health and safety codes to close down the yurt and converted office that were being rented out. The buildings were deemed uninhabitable.

“It’s really not about the money,” said yurt owner Gary Ransom, who charged $110 a night and hosted 35 stays in the past 11/2 years. “It was a chance to talk to people who wouldn’t stay in a hotel.”

Auburn City Manager Tim Rundel, citing the city’s shortage of hotel rooms during major sporting events, said the service has the potential to contribute to the local economy.

“Instead of sending them down the hill to Roseville or Rocklin, the Airbnbs would allow them to stay here,” Rundel. “I’d rather have them stay here, shop and eat. That’s sales tax revenue.”

Rundel, like others in the city government including Mayor Bridget Powers, has not taken a position in the debate.

A representative of Auburn’s only full-service hotel, the 96-room Holiday Inn on Grass Valley Highway, declined to comment for this article.

“I’d like to see a nice high-end boutique hotel here,” Powers said. “The hoteliers are saying it’s not there yet. We don’t have the influx of tourism, so the alternative is the Airbnb method.”

She added, “Too much regulation is not good. But right now, if a neighbor complains about somebody who’s doing it next door, there’s no recourse.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.