The deal Seattle struck to exempt specific property owners from certain new limits on short-term rentals seems unfair. The city should not so willingly craft policies favoring those who can afford expensive lawyers.
The way Seattle crafted its new Airbnb regulations is a story of the power of money and lawyers.
As Times reporter Dan Beekman explained last week, the city wrote its new short-term rental regulations — which affect people who rent out homes on online platforms such as Airbnb — specifically to exempt one property owner on Capitol Hill. The exemption allows building owner Eric Friedland to continue operating his 39 microunits as short-term rentals, despite new rules that limit most property owners in the city to two such units.
William McClelland, who owns a smaller building of three units in the Central District, gets no such privilege. He says he’ll have to shut down one of his short-term rental units or convert it to long-term rental housing because of the new city rules.
The difference is that Friedland hired a big time land-use law firm to appeal the city’s draft Airbnb regulations, while McClelland — who says he couldn’t have afforded a lawyer — did not.
On its face, the deal the city cut with Friedland was unfair: Drop your appeal, and we will pass rules out of committee that specifically don’t apply to you. The final rules also allowed existing operators of short-term rentals downtown — another group that had appealed the city’s environmental review — to skirt the two-unit rental limit.
The city should avoid letting lawyers write city policy, or creating carve-outs for particular individuals or groups merely to avoid hassle and delay. Caving to anyone who appeals or threatens to sue gives a clear advantage to the wealthy, who — unlike McClelland — can afford to hire attorneys.
The city’s quiet deal on the Airbnb rules is distinctly reminiscent of the “grand bargain” the city struck on its housing affordability and livability agenda (HALA) in 2015. In response to threats of a lawsuit, then-Mayor Ed Murray agreed to sweeping changes to the city’s land-use policies that were largely favorable to developers.
Seattle should not so willingly hand the keys to City Hall to the rich. If a proposed city policy is flawed, it should be debated and fixed in public view — not in a backroom among the few people who can afford to sit at the table.