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Our view: Go slowly on vacation rentals

Imagine Ken Aparicio's frustration. In 1998, he and his wife invested many thousands of dollars to restore the magnificent Cotton Mansion on East First Street after its inglorious stint as a rental house for college students. And then they still ...

Imagine Ken Aparicio’s frustration. In 1998, he and his wife invested many thousands of dollars to restore the magnificent Cotton Mansion on East First Street after its inglorious stint as a rental house for college students. And then they still weren’t able to realize their dream of reopening the cream-colored landmark as a bed-and-breakfast.
“We were required to have the historical society from the city come out and inspect the property and decide whether it was historically significant enough. Then we had to go to the Planning Commission, and we had to present plans showing them exactly how many square feet we had, where the parking was going to be (and more). Then (we) went to the City Council. That went before the public. Neighbors throughout the neighborhood could come in and speak their opinion,” Aparicio recalled. “Beyond that, we had the city inspector, plumbing department, electrical, health department inspections, (and) all kinds of things before we could open.”
The frustration is that, 17 years later, some property owners in Duluth are simply posting ads online and “just opening their doors,” as Aparicio stated at a chamber-sponsored public forum Tuesday. No hoops. No hurdles. And these property owners are running the equivalent of or a version of the business Aparicio and his wife operate after having to go through so much.
Hardly seems fair. Hardly seems right. And it’s one of the reasons the Duluth City Council in June put the brakes on issuing new permits for vacation rental properties. The yearlong moratorium is giving the city a chance to catch up with booming vacation-rental activity happening via online websites.
Folks are renting whole houses, bedrooms and even, in one instance, a tent in their backyard - and only some of them are obtaining the proper licenses and permits and paying the appropriate taxes. Others have gone rogue, dealing in cash and operating outside regulations put on the books to assure safety and to protect both property owners and guest renters.
“We’ve seen in Duluth in the past couple of years an explosion of rental vacation licenses but also an explosion of unlicensed, completely unregulated, short-term vacation rentals. And this has raised a lot of issues for our community,” said City Councilor Joel Sipress, also a panelist at the forum. “We probably don’t want to take a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Probably not. And more government regulation likely isn’t the answer, either. Instead, better and more appropriate regulations have to be adopted to reflect how modern technology is being used and to assure that everyone from spare-room-down-the-hall renters to income-property renters to bed-and-
breakfast operators and even to hoteliers are being treated fairly, are playing by the same rules and aren’t negatively impacting their neighbors. Some vacation rentals have become party houses in the middle of otherwise-quiet residential neighborhoods, Sipress said.
Online-advertised vacation rentals have become a $55 billion worldwide industry, according to Anna Tanski, the CEO and president of Visit Duluth.
“It is a significant part of the tourism industry (and) is something that is here to stay,” she said. “We as a community need to embrace this and come together.”
As city councilors, city planners and others do just that, as they rewrite regulations and the processes for licensing, inspections, safeguards and more, they can be thoughtful and thorough. It would be time well-spent. And they can keep in mind that no matter what they decide, they’ll be picking winners and losers, an uncomfortable role for government when consumers can dictate the marketplace - even one that’s frustrating.

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