Will R.I.’s new short-term rental property registry be too burdensome?

CHRISTOPHER C. BICHO stands in a renovated, antique firehouse in Newport in 2019. He rents the firehouse as an Airbnb site. Bicho says he doesn't mind registering his site with a regulator, but he thinks oversight of short-term rental properties should be handled by either the state or the local government, not both. / PBN FILE PHOTO/ELIZABETH GRAHAM
CHRISTOPHER C. BICHO stands in a renovated, antique firehouse in Newport in 2019. He rents the firehouse as an Airbnb site. Bicho says he doesn't mind registering his site with a regulator, but he thinks oversight of short-term rental properties should be handled by either the state or the local government, not both. / PBN FILE PHOTO/ELIZABETH GRAHAM

Now that every short-term rental property in Rhode Island listed on online sites such as Airbnb and VRBO will be required to register with the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, it remains to be seen what effect the new law will have on those property owners and on the state’s tourism industry.

The law took effect after the General Assembly on Jan. 4 overrode a veto by Gov. Daniel J. McKee, who contended that the registry would be too burdensome for property owners.

The measure – which was sponsored last spring by Rep. Lauren H. Carson, D-Newport, and Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport – also requires a $150 annual fee for each of the properties. Carson told PBN she didn’t have the details about how DBR will ensure compliance, but she is hoping there will be an online database. 

Under the law, it is the responsibility of hosting platforms to ensure properties are registered with DBR. A property owner is assigned an alphanumeric registration number, which includes a three-digit abbreviation for the area, as well as contact and property information. 

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Everything else, such as insurance requirements and fire inspections, is handled by local municipalities, Carson said.

Christopher C. Bicho, founder of the Landings Real Estate Group in Newport, said the legislation is good for identifying property owners, but he said there should be one regulatory body overseeing short-term rentals listed on third-party hosting platforms, instead of having state and local governments involved. 

Bicho, who rents 170 rooms in Newport ranging from $800 to $3,600 per night, said his company pays $115 annually in municipal fees for each of its 23 properties. 

“It would be good if the state registry took over, so we didn’t have to pay twice, at the municipal and state level,” he said. “Why not let DBR run the whole thing?”

Bicho said property owners who operate their rental business as a side gig could be deterred by the duplicate regulations. “It could start to become a regulation hassle for them,” he said.

The popularity of short-term rentals, as opposed to traditional hotel rooms, has gone in recent years as third-party hosting platforms have allowed the property owners to more easily earn money to provide places to stay, particularly in travel destinations such as Newport and South County. 

Airbnb said recently that hosts in Rhode Island have earned $210 million since 2010. 

“I support the small businesses, as there is clearly a demand for rentals in today’s tourism economy, but it’s important that we know who owns these properties,” Carson said. “That’s all this bill does.”

Why? Legislators noted shootings and stabbings linked to parties at Airbnb rental properties, including a double stabbing in July 2021 at a high-end rental home in Newport in which a Little Compton man died.

Carson said the law is aimed at ensuring that the identity of property owners is available to first responders, and the police, in case an incident occurs. “We have to make sure that guests that stay at Airbnb’s are safe,” Carson said.

She doesn’t think it’s a burden on property owners to ask them for an address and phone number if they’re running a rental business. “If it’s a burden asking property owners for that information, then the bar is really low,” she said.

While the law is in place now, Carson said, the DBR is not yet ready to accept registrations. In testimony on the legislation last spring, DBR Director Elizabeth M. Tanner expressed concern about the agency having to manage the database, saying DBR would have to assign at least one employee to handle it full time.

The requirements of the law only apply to short-term rental properties that are occupied for less than 30 days. 

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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