Seattle has postponed the Sept. 1 deadline for short-term rental operators to register their units due to what it called “technical difficulties” with the city’s online registration platform.
Until Dec. 15, operators listing units on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO needn’t be afraid of hefty fines the city can level for breaking rules mandating registration and limiting the number of units most hosts can operate, according to an email from the city to hosts last week.
Even after the new deadline, it’s unclear how the city will enforce the program. “We are still in discussion on what enforcement will look like come December 15. No final decisions have been made,” said city spokeswoman Cyndi Wilder. “Our goal is voluntary compliance and our focus is on targeted outreach, education and technical assistance.”
This is not the first time the deadline has been scrapped: Originally, hosts were required to register by Jan. 1. Since then, delays and usability issues have plagued the registration portal, frustrating both short-term rental operators and the affordability advocates who’d like to see such rentals restricted.
The process of registering her unit left Lorrie Alves so angry, she said she’d like to see a lawsuit against the city.
“Somebody didn’t quite understand what all the ramifications [of registering] were going to be for the average homeowner, if you’re not a business person,” she said.
Alves, 68, has listed the mother-in-law suite in the basement of her Bitter Lake home on Airbnb for almost two years. She says she made about $5,000 last year from the listing, which she used to supplement her retirement savings.
To advocates of reining in short-term rentals, an additional enforcement delay “means a potential deferral of hundreds of apartments that could otherwise be in the long-term market right now,” said Howard Greenwich, the research director at Puget Sound Sage.
The portal’s problems started more than a year ago, when the Seattle City Council repealed a nightly tax on short-term rentals, effectively cutting continuing funding for the registration program by over 90%. The city will make up some of the shortfall by taxing platforms $1/night per occupied unit starting September 1.
The city said the funding shortfall had “no connection” with the registration system rollout. But a July 2018 status report charting the impact of the tax repeal noted that the city was in a “materially different position” than when the city ordered implementation of a system requiring “extensive design and configuration.”
Seattle vacation-rental operators said the registration site that resulted is glitchy, time-consuming and opaque.
“I would call it Kafka-esque, but that would be too unkind to Franz Kafka,” said homeowner Tom Scearce, who has listed a one-bedroom apartment in his Madison Valley house on home-sharing platforms since 2018. He registered the unit this summer, but said the process was slow and confusing.
Alves said she tried eight times to register her unit before finally succeeding in late August. And after receiving what she called contradictory information from the city, she’s still not sure whether she actually needs the Washington business license she spent six weeks waiting for.
Finally, fed up, she emailed the city. “Many STR (short-term rental) owners are not business people, just ordinary citizens like you or perhaps your parents or children,” she wrote. “Help us!”
“We have experienced some growing pains,” responded Mary Mitchell, director of the city’s consumer-protection division, explaining that the problems Alves encountered were the result of issues with an embattled citywide software system, Accela. Accela has drawn similar complaints from some in the construction industry.
In late June, responding to user complaints, the city took the portal offline to simplify its interface, and relaunched it on August 19, two weeks before the deadline.
The yearlong delay has left some wondering whether hosts who evade regulations will be held to account.
Short-term rental operator Seth Gordon said he recently sold two houses he’d formerly listed on sites like Airbnb, to comply with the Sept. 1 deadline. (The city regulations specify that most hosts can only list two units — their home, and one other unit.)
“When I bought the homes, I was involved in a legal business. I paid down points for 30-year mortgages,” he said. Liquidating his investment in a down market left him feeling “trapped,” he said.
“I’m being forced into a sale at less than favorable prices to comply with a city policy they can’t even launch on time,” Gordon said.
Airbnb says it’s encouraging hosts not to ignore the deadline, despite the lack of enforcement. “Our message to all hosts in the same: compliance with the new law is required,” an Airbnb spokesperson said.
For each night a short-term rental operator lacks a license, the city can issue a fine of $500 to $1,000. And a spokesperson for Airbnb said after Dec. 15, hosts on its platform without a short-term license number will no longer be able to book guests.
The difficulties that operators encountered trying to register could be avoided if short-term rental platforms worked more closely with cities to ensure their hosts’ compliance, Greenwich, of Puget Sound Sage, said.
But attempts to require platforms to turn over information on their hosts have been fraught with legal challenges. After a subpoena and nearly a year of wrangling in the courts, in May, Airbnb agreed to share data on 17,000 hosts with New York City to help enforcement officers track down hosts who violated that city’s short-term rental regulations.
In Seattle, short-term rental platforms are required to submit some high-level information on hosts to the city each month. The city also contracts a data-mining service to collect the names and addresses of Airbnb hosts. The city plans to use the data to “verify operator compliance with licensing requirements,” according to the status report.
Operators who have experienced difficulty registering should check the city’s short-term rental website, send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 206-386-1267, a city spokesperson said. Customer-service representatives are working expanded hours to respond to operators’ registration questions.
An Airbnb spokesperson said the platform had hosted four registration workshops in June and July and is scheduling more for the fall. The platform will also update its Seattle host-information page with more information about registration.