Summit County commissioners discuss housing concerns with Airbnb representative

Airbnb shows signs of support for working with county on solutions

A lockbox is pictured May 14, 2020, at the Winterpoint Townhomes in Breckenridge. The townhomes are one of many short-term rental properties in Summit County. Groups like Airbnb and the Summit Alliance of Vacation Rental Managers are advocating for short-term rentals as county leaders discuss strategies to mitigate the area’s workforce housing shortage.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Summit County’s lack of workforce housing is a complex problem: Some point to low wages that can’t support rental costs and others point to the local real estate boom that pushed the price of a single-family home to well over $1 million. One of the biggest factors blamed for the issue, though, is the number of short-term rental units within the county.

At a housing retreat hosted earlier this year by the Summit Combined Housing Authority, county officials and town leaders learned that 70% of the county’s housing supply is vacant homes and that there are about 10,000 units listed as short-term rentals in the county, which equates to one-third of the entire inventory and about half of the vacant inventory.

The short-term rental market is a frequent topic of conversation as local leaders discuss how to turn some of its existing inventory back into housing for the local workforce. In fact, the topic has been discussed so much that Ayisha Irfan, public policy manager at Airbnb, joined the Summit Board of County Commissioners’ work session meeting Tuesday, July 13.

Irfan began the discussion by introducing herself and saying that she wanted to put “faces to names” as the county continues to discuss the workforce housing problem and how short-term rentals might be impacted.

Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence told Irfan about the county’s plans to incentivize short-term rental owners to convert their properties into long-term housing.

“We’re looking at incentives on how to … convert short-term rentals into long-term rentals because, frankly, we’re getting into the situation where businesses cannot operate here within our county because we don’t have enough housing,” Lawrence told Irfan. “We have restaurants and retail that are closing multiple days a week because they don’t have employees, and they’re only open on weekends. That’s become really, really difficult, and so we’re looking at strategies here on how to do that.”

During the discussion, Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue asked Irfan how many permitted Airbnb short-term rentals there are now in the county compared to five years ago as well as how many people the company employs within the county. Irfan said she would have to take these questions back to the Airbnb team to get them answered.

Pogue also asked whether Airbnb would be interested in partnering on some of these incentive strategies, and Irfan showed signs of support.

“We want to enable cities to make decisions that work for them, and we would love to be partners here,” Irfan said.

Irfan noted that the county would collaborate primarily with her on these programs and that she could also loop in Airbnb’s central policy team to increase momentum.

During the discussion, Irfan and the commissioners also discussed other issues related to short-term rentals. Lawrence noted that the county receives complaints about short-term renters who disturb nearby residents and that it’s difficult to mitigate some of these issues. County Commissioner Josh Blanchard echoed these concerns.

“We have undergone some changes in Summit County as it relates to the permitting and licensing process, and the neighborhood standards or the guest standards that we ask folks to comply with when they come to Summit County,” Blanchard said. “As you indicated, Summit County is certainly one of the leading counties in terms of folks using Airbnb, and as they leave these urban areas and visit (this) rural area, we have a lot of first-timers coming.”

Blanchard asked whether there were increased opportunities to work with Airbnb to communicate expectations before guests arrive so that the burden doesn’t fall to individual owners. To that, Irfan said yes, the two entities can collaborate to see what makes the most sense.

Irfan noted that during the pandemic, Airbnb sent out messaging to guests to inform them of their destination’s COVID-19 protocols. She said similar messaging could be released to give visitors more information about the county’s expectations of guests.

Irfan also said she has tools internally to help if disturbances become a consistent issue, such as escalating complaints within Airbnb’s management, which could then result in taking down a listing or issuing a temporary ban. Irfan said the team at Airbnb tries to mitigate issues like these within 12 to 24 hours.

Airbnb isn’t the first entity advocating for short-term rentals in the county’s workforce housing conversation. Also joining the conversation is the Summit Alliance of Vacation Rental Managers.

The organization drafted a letter in early May stating that its intentions are to “improve relationships on both sides of the conversation,” “unite the voice of the entire Summit County vacation rental community” and to “offer education and support for local housing initiatives.”

Most recently, the organization opposed a petition started by a Frisco resident to restrict short-term rentals.

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