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The Price Of Hospitality: Lawmakers Consider Registration Fee For Vermont Airbnb Hosts

Nanci Leitch stands in the bedroom in her house in Guilford. There's a bed and a painting on the wall.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Nanci Leitch stands in the bedroom in her Guilford home which she rents out through Airbnb. A bill being debated by Vermont lawmakers would require those who host rooms with Airbnb and other online short-term rental companies to register with the state.

Lawmakers are debating a bill that would require people who use Airbnb, and other online short-term rental companies, to register with the state.If the bill is passed as written, Vermont would become the first state in the country to develop a statewide registry for people who rent out their homes with companies like Airbnb.

The number of people using online short-term rental companies has been steadily growing over the past few years.

There were about 3,600 Vermont properties listed on Airbnb in 2016.

"It's a growing industry. It's growing by leaps and bounds," says Chittenden County Sen. Michael Sirotkin, who is one of the sponsors of the bill. "And I don't think people fully understand what their responsibilities are. So I think it's something we need to address."

Sirotkin says when people register, they'll get the information they need to make sure they know about the health and safety codes they're supposed to follow — though at this point the bill isn't suggesting mandatory inspections. Sirotkin calls it "self-certification."

A few years ago Vermont signed a deal with Airbnb, and the company now pays the rooms and meals tax. From October 2016 through June 2017, Airbnb paid a little more than $2 million in state and local taxes.

Vermonters who rent out their properties with Airbnb reported collective revenues of more than $20 million in 2016. 

Sirotkin says the proposed law would also make sure all Airbnb hosts understand their responsibilities to pay those taxes.

"We have the gig economy now where people are seeing opportunities to share their homes, and that's a good thing," he says. "And it's good for Vermont tourism. We just want it to be safe and we want to make sure people know what their obligations are vis-à-vis revenues for the state of Vermont."

"It's not a ton of money, but it's just one more thing that's unnecessary, in my opinion. I just think it's gonna prevent folks who might think about hosting to even try it out, because it's just kind of one more hurdle." — Nanci Leitch, Airbnb host in Guilford

Nanci Leitch lives in Guilford, and she's been renting out rooms in her house on Airbnb for about three years.

Leitch rents a room in her place maybe a couple of times a month. It's busier in the fall, but this winter has been pretty quiet.

But for Leitch, the extra cash she takes in makes a difference.

"Both my husband and I work in the social services and probably everyone in my office works two jobs," she say. "You know, that's just part of the facts of social services, and also living in Vermont. The salaries just don't cover the costs.

"So, we really count on our Airbnb income to kind of making ends meet, so we can contribute to our daughter's college. So that's what makes me so angry about this proposal."

Under the bill that's being debated, hosts would have to pay an annual fee of $130.

They would also be required to fill out some forms and make sure their properties meet the same health and safety standards that motels and inns have to meet.

Leitch says she's already paying the rooms and meals tax and that the state shouldn't ask more from the people who are renting out thier properties.

"It's not a ton of money, but it's just one more thing that's unnecessary, in my opinion," she says. "I just think it's gonna prevent folks who might think about hosting to even try it out, because it's just kind of one more hurdle."

A sign in Nanci Leitch's home in Guilford that she rents out with Airbnb.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Nanci Leitch has signs around her house that help her Airbnb guests navigate the house.

The pending bill is supported by hotel and inn owners, and Leitch says that's because they see people like her as direct competition.

Ronda Berns is vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 700 lodging businesses, from small bed-and-breakfasts to large hotels.

And every one of those, Berns says, pays an annual fee, insurance, and health and safety inspection costs.

Berns was in the Statehouse recently trying to convince lawmakers that now is the time to pass a short-term rental law.

"Airbnb and these internet platforms are not going away," she says. "It's a new opportunity for the state to bring in new tourism. So we are not saying we don't want any of this business, because it's a great new industry coming to Vermont. However, if you're not all playing by the same set of rules then that competition becomes more of a challenge."

A spokeswoman for Airbnb said officials were monitoring what was happening in the Vermont Statehouse, and she said the company was available to support hosts who have questions during the legislative process.

In a written statement, Airbnb's head of northeast policy Josh Meltzer said: "While Airbnb recognizes that we need rules for home-sharing, we need to craft policy that works for both local government as well as our community across Vermont. We are committed to finding a path forward that not only guarantees transparency and public safety, but also empowers hosts to continue using their homes to earn extra income and helps guests to visit communities across Vermont."

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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