Vacation rental bill doesn’t have any teeth

Vacation rental regulations are in the news again, both in Honolulu County and here. There is a lot of discussion about impacts on post lava flow Puna. It is tough to see our favorite Pahoa restaurants and all the other unique businesses struggling to survive. There is no doubt that the vacation rental business, from a community standpoint, brings people and employment — mainly cleaners, landscapers, caretakers — into our communities.

Nobody wants to appear as a big bully picking on the little grandma renting out a room to make ends meet. At the same time, this is also a business where lots of money can be made quickly, especially if you own several housing units, ideally located next to each other, and manage them remotely from a cellphone. We are quickly morphing into a situation where well capitalized outsiders are buying up whole blocks of residential neighborhoods and turning them into mini-hotels. And then there are the thousands of offshore investors buying future “retirement homes,” which all too often end up on AirBnB.

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Surely community spirit means that members must not only act with each other, but also for each other, for this is the only way that they can satisfy their shared needs freely. When AirBnB started, there was a genuine sense of social good, an excitement of people from all over the world coming together, sharing and trading stories. Ten years later, a good part of the vacation rental business has been cannibalized by commercially minded individuals where host and guest only relate to each other indirectly, by exchanging product — room or house — on a largely anonymous market and with the aid of money. Just take a look at what’s going on in any of our shoreline communities. To the extent that these multi-home vacation rental owners are even nearby or pay attention to their neighbors or to the larger communities around them at all, they only see their own narrow self interest or economic needs. They do not even live in the community. And so they end up oblivious to the concrete needs of their neighbors whose property taxes they drive up, whose children they deprive of ever living anywhere nearby where they grew up, and whose neighborhoods they convert into party towns.

Residential areas are for residents. Simply enforce zoning and allow people in such neighborhoods to short-term rent out maybe one entire home, ideally only during a few mass events such as Ironman or Merry Monarch. Grandfathering, yes, but only with expiration date. The experience of other municipalities shows that enforcement pays for itself and can successfully be outsourced to private enterprise.

For example, Santa Monica has successfully recouped all its enforcement costs via court prosecution. New York City and Los Angeles work with a well capitalized group that hires private investigators who “sting” book stays at AirBnB rentals, catching hosts ignoring the law. All of that has brought a lot of sanity to those cities, and AirBnB has even consented to “One Host, (Only) One Home” there.

Enter Hawaii. Mayor Caldwell’s omnibus permitting bill was hotly debated before the Planning Commission meeting in Kaneohe this past week. It would cap both Oahu B&Bs and unhosted vacation rentals combined to 1 percent of all housing units in a given area. Compare that to our own Bill 108, which features no limits and has no explicit notion of which kinds of hosting behavior we should encourage (for example, home sharing, where the owner lives in the community) and what needs to be carefully phased out (multi-unit owners and neighborhood overcrowding by too many absentee speculative hosts living offshore). Unlike Mayor Caldwell’s, our bill does not attempt to cover cases where owners live on property. Mayor Caldwell said he is trying to encourage hosted rentals rather than unhosted ones, and so he intends to tax them differently.

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I think that Mayor Harry Kim is genuinely worried about our lifestyle and I’ve not completely given up the hope that he might still come around to see that wholesale permission and taxation as put forward in Bill 108, coupled only with “trust me” based enforcement, may not be enough to preserve our neighborhoods. Harry, we trust you, but who will enforce and protect our lifestyle when your term ends and the ordinance itself does not have any real teeth?

Stefan Buchta is a resident of Hilo