Summer is upon us, and with the increased vaccination rate making tourism possible now, places like our district in Newport are pleased and relieved to welcome visitors again.
As the tourism industry tries to recover from the devastation impacts of a lost year, our state must get back to work on unresolved issues concerning short-term rentals offered by third-party hosting platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO.
We’ve been working in the General Assembly on several efforts to address their regulation and taxation, and we cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road in the unique challenges faced this tourism season. We’ve already experienced one tragedy this summer – the murder of a URI student at a party held at a short-term rental on Thames Street in Newport on Memorial Day weekend.
Without any interaction between the landlord and the renter who secures the property through the third-party platform, there is little vetting of renters, and rarely any management or other means available to discourage renters from using properties for out-of-control gatherings. The anonymity fostered by the third-party platforms reduces the sense of responsibility between renters and property owners, and complicates local efforts to maintain public safety and peace in the residential areas where they are located.
Incredibly, there is no government entity that can currently track properties rented in this manner, nor is any list made public or provided to the state or municipalities by the companies offering them to renters online. Although the platforms remit taxes to the state for distribution to municipalities, each company provides only a monthly breakdown of the total tax revenue it has collected from properties in each city or town, not their addresses or even how many properties there are. Attempts to require them to provide locations to government entities have been answered with lawsuits.
In Newport, the effects of the short-term rental industry are particularly evident, especially with the development of properties dedicated solely to short-term rentals. Our tax, health and safety codes were created with the expectation that residential properties housed residents, not travelers. This hybrid use — and the use of third-party hosting platforms that complicate the identification of the properties being used — have left Newport, other municipalities and the state at a loss in ensuring compliance with the measures that are intended to keep guests safe and the collection of hotel and sales taxes.
We cannot afford to keep punting on addressing the dangers and inequities created by the purposefully inscrutable third-party hosting platforms. There is still time – although not much, as the General Assembly session draws to a close — to pass our legislation to register every property offered as a short-term rental by any third-party platform. The legislation (2021-H 5505, 2021-S 0501) creates a simple, statewide registry of only the most basic information about each property to ensure compliance with safety and tax regulations, with owners’ contact information in case of an emergency.
As the hospitality industry works to rebound from a disastrous 2020, as well as the employee shortage it faces in 2021, our state should not let the safety issues posed by the practices of the short-term rental industry continue to detract from its success. We look forward to working with our colleagues in the General Assembly, tourism leaders and others in addressing this matter for the safety of all.
Rep. Lauren H. Carson, a Democrat, represents District 75 in Newport. Sen. Dawn Euer represents District 13 in Newport and Jamestown.