Vacation rental bill gives counties subpoena power

A gut-and-replace bill to be heard today would give counties more authority — including subpoena power — over transient vacation rental platforms.

In its original form, House Bill 460 would have prohibited counties from discounting fines on planning and permitting matters.

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In its new incarnation, it authorizes counties to establish a registry, open to public inspection, of permitted transient vacation rentals, defined as stays of less than 30 days or a period defined by county ordinance, for compensation.

In addition, the bill requires all travelers entering a county to submit and confirm the complete physical address of their place of stay, including unit number if applicable, which will be provided to the counties so they can validate legally and illegally operating short-term rentals.

That provision raised alarm bells with some testifiers.

“In no other state in this nation is one required to declare where or with whom they are staying and for how long when they are entering/visiting that state or county. This is a form of mass surveillance on citizens of the state and the nation,” said Oahu Realtor Kasandra Shriver. “Police the illegal short term rental owners, don’t create a police state for visitors and residents.”

The bill was proposed by Attorney General Clare Connors, who introduced it to the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 last week.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to take up the bill at its meeting at 10 a.m. today.

Its wording reflects concerns about the spread of coronavirus during the pandemic, but the bill, which would take effect on approval, has no provisions to end when the pandemic does.

“The legislature finds that the proliferation of ‘short-term rentals,’ which are generally transient accommodations other than hotels and motels, has adversely impacted the State,” HB 460 states in its introduction. “Short-term rentals pose health and safety risks to local residents and guests, reduce the availability of permanent housing, drive up rents, and adversely alter the character and quality of residential neighborhoods.”

Those submitting written testimony were divided about the issue.

“The pandemic has provided an opportunity to regulate illegal short-term rentals that intrude into our residential neighborhoods and the long-term rental housing,” noted Honolulu resident Bernard Nunies.

“The rampant number of mainland guests to my building makes it ground zero for possible COVID-19 infections from visitors that also have no regard or respect for laws around self-quarantine,” said Waikiki condo-dweller Roland Yee. “I am afraid for the health of my family, and especially my elderly parents. We sometimes feel like prisoners in our own home, while other people, obviously new to our building, disregard social distancing, wearing of face masks, etc.”

Hawaii County Planning Director Michael Yee supports the bill, saying the county has 4,000 permitted rentals and another 4,000 illegal ones. He said all the county planning directors worked with the Legislature on the wording of the bill.

The bill, Yee said in testimony, “will certainly not eliminate illegal vacation rentals, but will discourage the proliferation of them and allow each county to tailor their vacation rental enforcement efforts to suit its needs.”

The bill gives counties the power to require complete physical addresses, including unit number, tax map key number and county permit number and authorizes counties to prohibit hosting platforms such as Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and TripAdvisor from completing bookings or accepting fees for short-term rentals not listed in the county’s registry.

Owners of vacation rentals think the bill goes too far.

“That bill is cumbersome,” said Neal Halstead, vice president/treasurer of the Rental by Owner Awareness Association, a Maui-based volunteer nonprofit group of Hawaii property owners promoting rentals and property rights.

“It throws everything and the kitchen sink at rentals,” Halstead said. “The government needs to look at using technology to identify illegal vacation rentals and go after them that way.”

Alicia Humiston, president of the group, agrees. She said Oahu is the impetus of the bill because the other three counties seem to have their vacation rental problems under control.

“I like the spirit of what they’re trying to do,” Humiston said. “Nobody likes the illegal ones.”

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But Humiston thinks the bill will create a bureaucratic nightmare.

“Who’s going to pay for all of this stuff they’re asking for?” she asked.

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