“This ordinance as proposed would hinder visitation to our beautiful city”

logo Latest in a series of posts on Airbnb and short-term lodging logo

Dave Ruhf is a retired 35-year veteran of the Bethlehem Fire Department and avid traveler living the dream.

Gadfly:

I believe this ordinance as proposed would hinder visitation to our beautiful city during our festive events.

I for one use Homeaway or AirBnB to visit out national parks in the western portion of our country. My wife and I usually travel with another couple with smaller children requiring at minimum 3 bedrooms.

Under the proposed ordinance someone who travels as I do couldn’t rent a short-term residence.

An example: I rented 5 different residences when I visited the national parks in Utah, and my longest stay was 2 days at any one place.

The two-bedroom rule is detrimental in my opinion.

I suggest the authority having jurisdiction should investigate the average stays that people require when visiting vacation venues.

Dave

Here’s the proposed zoning amendment on short-term lodging

logo Latest in a series of posts on Airbnb and short-term lodging  logo

We always go to the primary sources, right?

Here is the short-term lodging proposal for addition to the zoning ordinances that was presented by Ms. Heller, City Planning Director, at the December 12 Planning Commission meeting.

Short-Term Lodging amendment to the City Zoning Ordinance

Here also is the related housing ordinance 1741 currently in place governing short-term lodging.

Article 1741: Short Term Lodging Facilities

And here Ms. Heller goes over the highlights of the proposed zoning amendment for the Planning Commissioners.

  • Short-term lodging is the term we use for services like Airbnb and others.
  • We currently have a housing ordinance that addresses short-term lodging, been in place for 18 months or two years.
  • We do require that anyone operating short-term lodging be licensed.
  • We’re taking the opportunity now to carry some of those same provisions over into the zoning ordinance.
  • We have a definition for a short-term lodging facility and also for hotels so that the two are compatible.
  • We define where short-term lodging will be permitted.
  • If someone is renting out two bedrooms, we would require a third off-street parking space.
  • We are not allowing in this ordinance a rental of more than two bedrooms.
  • We would only be permitting in an owner occupied unit.
  • For a unit not occupied by the owner, we would not allow short-term lodging at all.
  • No more than two rooms can be offered for rent.
  • No exterior alterations.
  • If the unit is owner-occupied and you can meet these parameters, short-term lodging would be permitted.
  • We would not consider short-term lodging for any unoccupied or landlord-type scenario.

Sound reasonable? Whatta you see?

to be continued . . .

 

 

Airbnb . . . short-term lodging: why should we care?

logo Latest in a series of posts on Airbnb and short-term lodging logo

As we move into a series of posts on the short-term lodging proposal just introduced before the Planning Commission, Gadfly would like to recycle part of post from October 6, 2018, fourteen months ago, and just 3 weeks after Gadfly-became-Gadfly.

The Northside Historical District is not Gadfly’s neighborhood. It is not the neighborhood of you, the vast majority of Gadfly followers.

Why should we care what happens in the Northside Historical District?

First things first, why should the general “we” of the City care? Why is Gadfly spending time on this? Why should you read on if you don’t live in the Northside Historical District?

Good question, Gadfly.

And Gadfly answers that it has to do with the perfectly understandable concern over the nature of your neighborhood. Something everybody has or should have. Every time Gadfly uses that word “neighborhood,” he thinks with pleasure of Fred Rogers, “Mr. Rogers” (did you see the recent Tom Hanks’ movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”?). It’s about the quality of life in your neighborhood, about caring for and about your neighborhood, and “control” of your neighborhood. This is or should be a concern across the City and has much wider implications than just Airbnb.

Mr. Gadfly’s neighborhood is changing. Has changed. Of the 15 houses in Gadfly’s block, 6 are now rentals. Porch palings are missing. Parking is harder. Some sidewalks want to hurt you. Mother Nature is sometimes the only sidewalk snow-shoveler. Glaring, spooky feral cats have taken over the once carnival-like street (40 kids playing there at one point). Yards aren’t all that well taken care of. Gadfly’s lawn is “crop-circled” by dogs on leashes. Where have all the flowers gone? Some porches have become utility sheds. We were once a tree-shaded lane; now Gadfly’s tree (“Secundus,” since it is a replacement) stands alone, sole respecter of City ordinance.

Poor maudlin Gadfly. He doesn’t live in the Northside Historical District. But he gets it. We all should get it. Neighborhoods change one rented house, one dog pee at a time. Often imperceptible change. Till one day it’s too late. Gadfly gets it. We all should get it. And be invested in what happens in the Northside Historical District.

It pays to fight for our neighborhoods. Gadfly always says that. You may have noticed.

We must speak up.

Airbnb has provided some of the most dynamic resident-involved meetings in Gadfly’s Council spectatordom history. Take a look at “Our neighborhoods are under attack” (the quote is Frank Boyer’s), about the September 4, 2018, meeting that Gadfly called “one of the best of the year . . . The air crackled. Tension was thick. The issue was urgent, resident commentators were passionate, Council was involved and concerned.”

It’s up to the City to protect our neighborhoods.

Whether it’s First Terrace or West Goepp or whatever, Gadfly will always be following “developments.”

Let’s see what’s going on with this proposed zoning ordinance.

to be continued . . .

Proposed zoning ordinance dusts off the Airbnb issue

logo Latest in a series of posts on Airbnb and short-term lodging logo

Short-term lodging, short-term rentals, home-sharing: sometimes conveniently referred to by the short-hand of Airbnb, the company with which this practice is most associated.

Airbnb locations in Bethlehem

“The Uber of the hospitality market, Airbnb acts as an online broker, connecting people who need a place to stay with hosts who have a spare bedroom, apartment or a full house to rent.”
————

The Airbnb issue is before us again. It’s been out of sight for over a year. Brought back by a proposal introduced at the Planning Commission December 12 for a change in the zoning code to complement an ordinance passed last year.

We’re going to spend several posts on this proposal. So it’s time to refresh ourselves on the background.

Click Airbnb under Topics on the right-hand Gadfly sidebar for access to previous posts.

For a deep background timeline, see: The Airbnb Controversy (1)

Though the roots of this controversy long precede Gadfly-becoming-Gadfly, the issue seems to have begun with neighbors’ reacting to a specific Bethlehem couple in the Northside historical district renting their home (and then homes) on a short-term basis.

In the next post we will want to ask why all of us should be attentive to what’s happening in one section of the City.

Charles Malinchak, “Bethlehem planners delay recommendations on short-term lodging changes.” Morning Call, December 13, 2019.

Bethlehem is considering a proposal to regulate short-term rentals — akin to renting rooms or whole houses to overnight guests — in its zoning code for the first time. While the city has an ordinance to license such uses, the new ordinance would actually spell out in what zoning districts they can be.

The proposed changes are in an zoning amendment aimed at what is being called “short-term lodging” which the commission discussed, but members determined at least two sections of the regulations need to be fined tuned. The two questions the commission requested be looked into further were how many days per year the home or room can be rented and what zoning districts should the activity be permitted.

According to a copy of the proposal, a short-term lodging facility is a single family home occupied by the owner who rents no more than two bedrooms for up to 30 days. The home would not be licensed as a hotel or a bed and breakfast and no exterior alterations or expansions of the home would be permitted to expand the rental operation, according to the amendment. The areas where the rental activity would be permitted or with a special exception permit include the following zoning districts: rural residential, single family residential and medium and high density residential.

Hotel Bethlehem Co-Partner and city resident Bruce Haines told the Planning Commission that the amendment doesn’t really mesh with an existing ordinance regulating housing. “The point is, these places need to be single family homes where the visitor has access to the entire house like the kitchen, living room and dining room,’’ he said after the meeting. One of the problems, he said, is that several homes in the center city historic district are already operating under the pretense of short-term lodging but are actually apartments with no access to the rest of the house.

The commission will continue discussion of the issue and possibly make recommendations at its January meeting. Those recommendations would be forwarded to City Council. The city began looking at the zoning issue after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case earlier this year that ruled in favor a Monroe County municipality’s zoning of short-term lodging. The city’s current licensing ordinance is under appeal in Northampton County Court.

The ordinance was created after residents complained about the houses being rented out in their neighborhoods. Critics say they have no problem with homeowners licensed to rent out a bedroom or their house to overnight guests, but oppose investors buying homes for that sole purpose, creating a commercial intrusion into their neighborhood.

to be continued . . .

Taking the air out of Airbnb? (11)

(11th in a series of posts on Airbnb)

Been a good 6 months since Gadfly buzzed about the Airbnb issue, affecting several parts of the City but especially the Northside Historical District.

But interesting news.

April 26, 2019

Justia Opinion Summary

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether a zoning ordinance that defined “family” as requiring “a single housekeeping unit” permitted the purely transient use of a property located in a residential zoning district. This question arose based on the increasingly popular concept of web-based rentals of single-family homes to vacationers and other short-term users (usually for a few days at a time). The Supreme Court concluded that pursuant to its prior decisions in Albert v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of N. Abington Twp., 854 A.2d 401 (Pa. 2004), and In re Appeal of Miller, 515 A.2d 904 (Pa. 1986), the purely transient use of a house is not a permitted use in a residential zoning district limiting use to single-family homes by a “single housekeeping unit.”

Let’s chew on that last line again: “the purely transient use of a house is not a permitted use in a residential zoning district limiting use to single-family homes by a “single housekeeping unit.”

What else can than that mean than Airbnb in the Northside Historical District is not permitted.

Can we look forward to the end of Airbnb in the Northside Historical District?

The Gadfly family recently stayed in an Airbnb-type house for an extended stay in South Bend, Indiana, for the graduation of a granddaughter from the University of Notre Dame. It was a lovely stay. It beat the hell out of us all staying in separate hotel rooms.

The previously rather run-down neighborhood around campus is undergoing a change as dilapidated homes are being demolished and new homes are replacing them, new homes expressly built for Airbnb-type purposes.

Thus, that situation is quite different than what we have.

Nothing against the home-sharing industry. Fine in South Bend. It is actually kind of creating a “neighborhood” there. Home owners are for the concept.

Quite a different situation than what we have.

“Our neighborhoods are under attack” (10)

(10th in a series of posts on Airbnb)

The Old info about the Airbnb issue that Gadfly wants to fill in here in this post comes from the Sept 4 City Council meeting, the minutes of which have only recently become available.

Those minutes are available at Sept 4 City Council minutes (pages 2-16).

(All quotes here will be from the minutes, but, as we all know, the Council minutes by Louise Kelchner are very full and good, so that the minutes are virtually transcriptions of the speakers.)

Gadfly wants to provide this “old” information not only to fill a hole in the record of this issue on the blog but also to highlight the high quality of the resident commentary.

Remember, the full minutes are just a link away, and you are encouraged to use that primary source.

Remember, too, that this meeting occurred before the successful Oct. 5 hearing before Judge Manwaring reported on in post #7 and then the appeal of the Judge’s ruling by the owners this past week, as just reported here in post #9.

Gadfly remembers the Sept 4 meeting as one of the best of the year. The air crackled. Tension was thick. The issue was urgent, resident commentators were passionate, Council was involved and concerned, the City solicitor provided necessary factual framework (first time Gadfly had heard him speak at a meeting) to help keep everybody’s eyes on the ball.

In short, everyone was concerned about and frustrated by a continuing problem that a recent ordinance was supposed to fix. Why were the Airbnb rentals still occurring? Why wasn’t the City enforcing the ordinance?

After all, as Frank Boyer said, “our neighborhoods are under attack.”

The basic response to those kinds of questions was mundane and bound simply to raise the collective frustration level: lack of enough enforcer person-power. Chief City code enforcer (and new to the job, Gadfly believes) Michael Simonson detailed the burdens of his limited staff compounded by the fact that violators must be caught in the act, in flagrante delicto, which, of course, is almost always after hours and on weekends when his staff is not working. This latter point seemed a genuine surprise to everybody. High hopes and expectations dashed by workaday, practical realities.

Councilman Reynolds asked the key question: why can’t the City just shut down these rentals while waiting for the Northampton County court to make a ruling on the validity of the ordinance? City Solicitor Leeson provided an answer as basic and as understandable as Simonson’s and just as frustrating: the punishments in our ordinance are only fines and penalties (and we cannot even increase the fines or apply penalties until we get a first adjudication of guilt on the homeowner). And if the City wanted to go further to stop the businesses, it would have to show proof of guilt, which it would not have till it won the case before Judge Manwaring that was not coming up for a month. The City was trapped by circumstance, paralyzed at the moment.

Attorney for the HDNers (Historic District Neighbors) Tim Stephens did not improve anybody’s digestion by reporting that the ruling by Northampton County judge Dally could take months and even if in favor of the City, appeals could take years. His advice was to continue enforcement, pile up multiple fines as evidence of guilt, do it throughout the City so that multiple judges are involved, and on that basis petition for a preliminary injunction to halt operation. Even that might not work. The standard is high. But faint hope glimmered.

Enter the residents. Gadfly only began following City Council in January, so he went back to the minutes of the meetings of Nov. 21 and Dec. 5, where this STR ordinance passed its two readings. Large and eloquent resident commentary overwhelmingly favored passage of the ordinance. Go take a look. It’s great stuff! This time, however, similarly forceful resident commentary was aimed at urging the City to beef up enforcement of that ordinance.

Ron Yoshida held up the bleak image of Lisbon, which he had just visited, where Airbnb has swallowed half the historic district, and, emphasizing the need to set budget priorities to enforce the STR regulations and fight this cancer, he reminded us of the old Fram oil filter commercial: “Pay me now, or Pay me later!”

No need to look across the pond for an image of the cancer besetting us, said Stephen Antalics, just look across the river into the Southside, where nonresident landlords destroyed a vibrant community by buying up properties and turning them into student housing. The common denominator between the Airbnb and student housing is simple — it is profit. Be aggressive, fight with every tool you have, counseled Antalics: “You have history here, the death of the south side from a cancer that could spread across the river to the north side.” (Gadfly thought Stephen’s ex tempore here, the most striking, the most powerful he heard all year.)

Riffing on Antalics, Bruce Haines described the significant and dangerous difference between student housing and Airbnb as the difference between the neighbor you can at least get to know and a succession of neighbors you don’t know, will never get to know — a succession of complete strangers. Neighbors not at all.

Al Wurth pointed out that the City rules and regulations confer value, the value that provides incentives for home owners to pay the higher prices for houses in the historic district. The City provides assurance to people that where they move will not turn into a nightmare. And that requires a good deal of enforcement of those rules and regulations. “We cannot have let’s make a deal, we cannot have sharp lawyers getting around the law.” We must give that assurance so people will want to live in the District.

While other residents focused on what the City can and should do, Bill Scheirer focused on what residents themselves can do. Like being City watchdogs. Catching renters in flagrante delicto. Seeing renters arriving at an Airbnb site one day, Scheier hustled himself right to City Hall and fetched the enforcement officer, who issued a citation. And like being just plain ornery rascals. To wit, when using the library, Scheirer makes it a point to park in front of the nearby Airbnb house when he can, “just to deny them one parking space.” Citizen activism! You gotta love it.

And successful.

Shortly after the meeting the Bethlehem Press could report that “Donchez cracks down on rentals.” The Mayor moved to make staffing adjustments aimed at improving the policing of the rental sites: “Effective beginning this weekend, there will be an increase in monitoring and enforcement of Short Term Lodging Facilities throughout the City. We will now have on-call and proactive monitoring of our STL ordinance on Thursday and Friday evenings, as well as on Saturday and Sunday. The public is encouraged to call the City’s non-emergency number, 610-865-7187 and speak with a dispatcher, leaving your name and phone number so an inspector can call you back to assess the situation. The inspectors will be available to come out to the site, gather evidence, and cite new violators of this ordinance.”

Nicely done, gadflies.

Local Airbnb decision appealed (9)

(9th in a series of posts on Airbnb)

My mole in the bureaucracy informed Gadfly that the Oct 5 decision of local magistrate Manwaring against the home owners for specific violations made at his then toilet-less but now fixed courtroom on Broad Street has been appealed.

At that Oct 5 hearing, Judge Manwaring as much as said he assumed his ruling would be appealed.

And, though Gadfly may be mistaken, there seemed to be some sense that the ruling would be reversed on appeal.

The case was appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, which, Gadfly believes, is the same Court hearing the case on the validity of the Bethlehem Ordinance, which is the bigger, more fundamental issue here.

But Gadfly could be wrong. Much a rookie in these legal matters.

Any info that the NHD neighbors can share would be valued.

Here are the court documents so far:

Airbnb 1

Airbnb 2

Not much to see here.

Gadfly has reached out to homeowners Brew and Williams, as well as their lawyer, but they have not responded. The basis for their appeal of Judge Manwaring’s ruling is given in post #7 in this sequence.

We do not have their position in detail on the larger issue of the validity of the ordinance per se. Newspaper articles indicate that the basis for their appeal there is that the City should have enacted a zoning change rather than the ordinance, thus grandfathering their business operation. The owners have also made a case in interviews that they are preserving the properties and keeping them from being turned into apartments. Also, Gadfly supposes, they could make the case they they simply have the right to engage in lawful business. They did not appear at City Council at the end of last year to contest the proposed ordinance.