It’s not working Airbnb law ineffective
Residents packed the city council’s chambers last week to hear that the recent law passed by Bethlehem’s legislative body to control the phenomenon of private homes being turned into short-term rentals for a constantly shifting population is not working.
Bethlehem City Solicitor William Leeson explained that there is a pending lawsuit against the City of Bethlehem challenging the validity of the ordinance. He said this has effectively put enforcement on hold until that case has been adjudicated – a process that, if appealed, could take years.
The lawsuit against the city was filed by attorney Leo DeVito of Bethlehem on behalf of Jay Brew, who owns buildings in the Historic District of Bethlehem.
Leeson said the case is now before the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton County.
The City of Bethlehem administration declined to make a statement to the Press when asked.
Chief Building Inspector Mike Simonson said his staff has issued 14 citations. “I assure you we are doing our best.” He said he has limited staff to devote to enforcement of the ordinance.
One of the problems with issuing more citations is a lack of manpower for the task. Simonson said his department has five housing inspectors, who also have to do other tasks with the department ,such as issuing building permits and doing building inspections.
One thing that slows down the issuance of citations is that a citation has to be issued to a person who is physically in the building. Since the owners of residences being used as short-term rental are typically not present when guests check in via a lockbox, code enforcement personnel must issue the citation only to a person who is in the building when the code officer arrives.
Since many transient residents check into their Airbnb rental on weekends and City Hall is closed on weekends, catching someone in the residence is hard for code enforcement officers to do.
“I’m completely stunned by what I just heard,” said Barbara Diamond, a resident of Center Street in Bethlehem’s Historical District. She said in a later interview that her comment was in reaction “to what I perceived as the city’s ineffectual response to the Airbnb situation – some people around me whispered ‘impotent’ and ‘unbelievable.’ I think you could see the eye rolling and outright gasps. Of course, most of the people there were from my neighborhood and directly impacted by the [three] whole-house Airbnbs.”
In prepared remarks, Diamond expressed concerns about the ethics of people buying homes for commercial reasons in what they know to be residential-zoned areas.
“I am speaking of course about 2 W. Market [St.] and the three properties illegally operating as Airbnbs. What unites these two situations is that in both cases, individuals seek to exploit the beauty of the historic district for their private gain over the objections of residents and in defiance of the city’s regulations and the recent Commonwealth Court decision.”
East Market Street resident Roland Yoshida compared the continued growth of private residences being put on the short-term rental market to a “cancer.” He urged city council to restructure its priorities “to deal with the cancer now, or not be around later.”
Councilman William Reynolds said he thought that fines imposed on violators might be used to hire more code inspectors.
Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt seemed to agree with Reynolds. “We need to pay for more code officers,” she said.
“You seem to have a law that can’t be immediately enforced,” said resident William Scheirer.