Urbana looks at whether to regulate short-term room rentals
URBANA — Can't find a hotel room? Stay with a stranger.
That's essentially the premise for travelers looking for off-the-beaten path accommodations, and it has Urbana city officials reconsidering how they regulate bed and breakfasts.
Champaign-Urbana listings on Airbnb.com are growing — as of this week, 41 rooms were available in the two cities and two more in Mahomet. The peer-to-peer website lets property owners offer bedrooms for short-term boarders who are looking for a place to stay when they come to town.
Andrea Coffer lives on Provine Circle in Urbana, and she regularly opens her home to travelers. They come in on busy weekends at the University of Illinois. Most of the time they sleep in the home's second-floor bedroom, maybe stop to chat for a minute or two and then they're out the door.
"They've been just the best people," Coffer said. "Just a weary traveler who doesn't want to do the hotel."
You can get a room in Urbana on Airbnb.com for anywhere from $30 to $100 per night. The website is international — offering 34,000 rooms in 190 countries.
It's a bit of extra income for Coffer, and she has to set her price accordingly — right now, she'll let you stay for $49 per night. They have costs just like any other business, and it gets more difficult as the list of rentals grows.
"It's a lot of competition," Coffer said.
But Urbana Community Development Director Libby Tyler said the 20 Urbana rentals listed on Airbnb.com might be operating out of the bounds of city rules. Many of them probably need a special permit from the city, Tyler said. Others might need to register as landlords.
"Once you start renting out rooms to transients, you're not a single-family home anymore," Tyler said. Your neighbors are "going to be seeing people that they don't normally see, they're going to see more activity, there might be more vehicles. Things just start to change."
That does not necessarily mean the city is going to make them stop. Tyler said city officials soon plan to contact some of those who are offering rooms to talk about what they might need to do to operate legally.
"We do have exceptions, we do have allowances, but you need to follow the rules," Tyler said. "Of course, we're concerned with safety, we're concerned with occupancy levels, we're concerned with fire safety."
Officials are not bringing down the hammer just yet on the illegally operating bed and breakfasts. City officials are working on their "enforcement strategy," Tyler said, and that may involve more than one remedy.
The city is allowed to fine people who are not complying with city ordinances, but zoning cases are tricky and can end up in court — Tyler said officials want to avoid that.
"This is a new type of use," she said. "We understand that people may not understand that they will need to be regulated."
The story is a bit different in Champaign, which has looser rules about running home-based businesses. Some of the 21 rentals available in that city might even qualify legally as bed and breakfasts, said Assistant Planning Director Rob Kowalski, and that would mean they would have to be located in an area zoned for that type of operation. But Champaign would enforce those rules only if it hears a complaint.
Coffer has been involved directly with the city of Urbana. She wanted to expand her rental business and went through the appropriate channels to try to obtain a special permit through the city's zoning board of appeals. She was denied that permit but continued operating as she had been before she asked to expand.
When a neighbor complained, the city stepped in again.
"That prompted us to send an enforcement letter that they cease offering it for a bed and breakfast type use, especially as a violation of our code, but in direct conflict with the ruling of the zoning board," Tyler said.
Now Coffer wants to start a conversation with the city about how informal bed and breakfasts operate. Coffer feels the city does not have the authority to tell her to stop, and she wants the Airbnb.com community to come together to work out a solution with the city.
That's especially since she uses the income from the rental room to offset property taxes, which are on the rise in Urbana.
"You're kind of infringing on a homeowner's rights," Coffer said.
Elaine Mustain and her husband rent out a room in their home on West Illinois Street through Airbnb.com, too. They are about to take a bit of a hiatus, but to date have had nothing but positive interactions with renters and their neighbors, she said.
"We have had wonderful experiences with the people who have stayed with us," Mustain said.
Located only a few blocks east of campus, she said nearly all of their renters have been associated somehow with the University of Illinois. They come from as far as Australia and China, and the Mustains sometimes go periods of time where visitors come one after another.
If the city were to end or somehow limit that, Mustain said she would be "disappointed."
The problem for the city is that the use is so new, and within the past years, city officials have been increasingly dealing with the "shared economy." That is, through the Internet, people everywhere are able to offer almost any kind of goods or services right from their home without a physical business location or any of the associated regulation.
That does not always jive with existing city laws, and the Airbnb.com conflict is just the latest example. That could mean changes are forthcoming in Urbana.
"Things like this are evolving all the time, and our regulations don't always keep up," Tyler said. "We always research, and we like to keep our ordinances up to date."