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Huntington resident Dany Smith speaks in favor of allowing short-term rentals like Airbnb. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Huntington residents are split over the town’s attempts to increase regulation on short-term home rentals, like Airbnb, on the matter of safety versus financial security. 

Huntington Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D) has put forth legislation that proposed to further limit the number of days that a property may be leased as a short-term rental from 120 down to 90. A Feb. 13 public hearing held on the proposed law drew a divided crowd.

“It is a step in the right direction, but we need to go a step further,” Diane Lettieri, of Dix Hills, said.

The safety issues this practice raises are beyond belief.”

— Diane Lettieri

Lettieri said she lives three houses down from 2 Langhans Court in Dix Hills where a man was shot at a party hosted in the backyard of a property that had been rented out in August 2018. She’s had several meetings with Huntington officials asking for short-term rentals through companies like Airbnb, VRBO, Tripping.com and numerous others to be banned for the safety of the community.

“Homeowners renting out rooms is putting strangers in our neighborhoods and inside their homes,” Lettieri said. “The safety issues this practice raises are beyond belief.”

However, homeowners across town have a very different perspective on how short-term rentals through Airbnb can be beneficial in providing security. Cold Spring Harbor resident Philip Giovanelli said he’s hosted guests as his home since the town first addressed the topic nearly two years ago. He added he’s in full compliance with town code.

“Since that first hearing, I’ve turned 65, I’m a senior and I’ve developed a disability,” he said. “I depend on income from Airbnb.”

Giovanelli said his property’s close proximity to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has led to an interesting array of researchers and doctors seeking a temporary place to stay in his residence.

“I would have to restrict a cancer researcher from England or China from staying, saying we have no room as we’ve expended our time, we’re over the limit,” he said. “These people are important to the community and to the rest of the world.

Huntington resident Dany Smith also spoke out in favor of supporting short-term rentals as she hosts guests to help supplement her income. In 2018, Smith said she rented out two rooms in her home for a total for 111 days.

“I read the options for the amendments and I agree with all of them except for one,” she said. “I hope you reconsider the limit from 120 to 90 days.”

Smith is in favor of suggested changes to give code enforcement officers better tools to police these rented abodes and would prevent those hosts found in violation of federal, state or local laws from reapplying for a new short-term rental permit for one year.

I read the options for the amendments and I agree with all of them except for one. I hope you reconsider the limit from 120 to 90 days.”

— Dany Smith

For Justine Aaronson, a Dix Hills resident, the town’s proposed changes still come up short. She presented a petition signed by more than 1,800 residents to the Town Clerk Jo-Ann Raia (R).

“We need you to protect children in our residential communities and keep the quality of life for residents who prefer a community feeling, not a motel,” she said.

Aaronson said one of her neighbors can be found advertising a room for rent at $45 a night. She suggested if the town will not ban such behavior, to at least place further limits such as a 14-day minimum stay or no rentals for period of less than 29 days.

While the proposed legislation suggests scaling back a room leased under short-term rentals from 120 to 90 days of a calendar year, there is no minimum or maximum stay. In addition, it does state that a property owner, or host, “may apply to the director for a hardship exemption” around the rules.

The Huntington town council reserved their decision for a later date.

“I’m hoping if this does get amended and we lower the days to 90, we don’t continue lowering the days,” Smith said. “I’ll have to move off Long Island.”

Michele Rice-Nelson at her Miller Place home turned short-term rental facility thanks to Airbnb. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Miller Place resident Michele Rice-Nelson noticed the back corner of the dust ruffles under the couches in her Airbnb were slightly folded, and with an “oh” she dropped to her knees and straightened them.

They were only a few small things, but they mattered to Rice-Nelson. The blinds were a hair’s breath askew and she aligned them. She checked to see if there were waters in the mini fridge next to the bed. She flitted over to the bedspread to straighten and pat it down. She expected her guests to arrive later, and she wants her external suite turned Airbnb to be flawless before they arrived.

“I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” Rice-Nelson said, then laughed. She is the franchise owner of the travel agency Cruise Planners World Tour, and her Airbnb is one way she reaches a huge, more personal market for clients. “Its that attention to detail, you know. In this chaotic world that we’re living in now, just those little things, those random acts of kindness, those are the things that we introduce that make people go ‘wow,’” she said. “As long as people can feel appreciated then I know I’ve done a good thing.”

The personal touch has made Airbnbs, an online service that allows people to use their homes as short-term rentals, a growing trend on Long Island. The number of guest arrivals rose 57.4 percent to 74,000 from 2015 to 2016. The number of guests and hosts is expected to grow on Long Island in 2017. Hosts on Long Island earned a median yearly income of $9,800, according to Airbnb spokesman Andrew Kalloch.

That income has been an unexpected boon for Port Jefferson resident Sophie Partridge Jones, who didn’t assume much when she first put her extra room up on Airbnb. “The beginning of last summer we just took some pictures and set it up on Airbnb and started getting bookings immediately,” she said. The money also aided Jones and her family in their day-to-day living expenses. “I mean, it doesn’t replace having a job, but having been booked the entire summer averaging about $70 a night comes out to be pretty significant.”

Matt Lohse, a surgeon at Stony Brook University Hospital, has been renting out the small, serene cottage on his property in Rocky Point since March 2015. He said that while the extra income is nice, the real fun is from providing a living space for travelers.

“We would always talk that if for some reason my wife and I ever had to quit our day jobs or maybe as a retirement gig, a bed and breakfast would be kind of a fun thing,” Lohse said. “We get people from all walks of life. We’ve had families, we’ve had couples, we’ve had single people. We had people who came over all the way from Germany.”

While Airbnb hosts can find joy in hosting strangers, the hospitality industry has been less welcoming to the new business model. Opinions of Airbnb from hospitality industry groups range from skepticism to outright hostility.

According to John Tsunis, owner of the Holiday Inn Express on Route 347 in Centereach, any vacancy “is going to impact not only my hotel but all the hotels in the general area. It’s very important to the viability of a hospitality venue. If we can’t sustain that then it not only impacts the hotel itself but also staffing, employment and the whole ecostructure of the hotel.”

Airbnb sees its business as only helping to expand the interest and number of customers for the entire leisure industry. “We think that home sharing is increasing the tourism pie. It’s not a zero sum game. The hotel industry had one of their biggest years last year,” said Kalloch.

The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that employment in the leisure sector has been steadily rising year over year since 2010. Local inns have not found a lack of customers either.

“We were busy last year but we’re already busier this year,” said Elyse Buchman, who co-owns The Stony Brookside Bed & Bike Inn with her husband Marty. “Our area does have a shortage of rooms and an abundance of visitors due to [Stony Brook] University as well as private events that are held in the area.”

“We’re very selective, and Airbnb hasn’t hurt us at all. We turn away people all the time,” said Dan Tarantino, the owner of The Ransome Inn in Port Jefferson. “I’m old, I’m retired, my wife and I cherry pick because we don’t want to be that busy.”

But for Tsunis, the one item that has been the most visible concern are things dealing with safety. Unlike regular hotels, Airbnbs are not inspected for things like working sprinklers or fire alarms as well as the sanitary conditions inside the rooms. Airbnb uses software like behavioral analysis to try and root out any problematic hosts or guests from its service along with a verified ID system, but these do not necessarily protect guests or hosts once they finally come together. While Airbnb will sometimes send a photographer to new listings to take pictures, it does not send anybody to check for safety issues.

Some local and state governments have tried enacting laws against Airbnb for some of these reasons. In January the Town of Huntington drafted a resolution that proposed potentially banning Airbnb rentals. However, due to public outcry from Airbnb hosts, the town this month proposed restrictions on advertising their homes and the length of guest’s stay.

But for people who host an Airbnb and have been doing it long enough to have a 5-star rating and a list of glowing reviews, these problems are mostly irrelevant, and hotels’ complaints of Airbnb are beside the point.

Before moving to Long Island Jones worked as finance manager at several hotels in California. “When I was working in a hotel I probably would have been more against Airbnb then I am now, because, you know, it was competition. But I think things are changing in this economy — you see it with things like Uber, you see it with Airbnb.”

Image from Airbnb

By Victoria Espinoza

Weary travelers to the Huntington area might have a harder time finding a place to lay their head.

Earlier in 2017 Huntington’s town board announced a plan to restrict and possibly ban Airbnb users in the community, and at the June town board meeting the new rules were unveiled.

At the January meeting residents gave overwhelming support for the use of Airbnb, an online marketplace that facilitates short-term leases and rentals for travelers, and said it not only benefits users, but also brings money back into the town. Overall users said they were happy to see a ban was no longer being considered, though they were still critical of certain restrictions.

“Unlike other types of lodgings such as national hotel chains, 97 percent of revenue generated through Airbnb goes directly to our hosts who plow it back into the Empire State economy,” Jeffrey Sellers, a community organizer at Airbnb said during the meeting. “The vast majority of these New York hosts, 56 percent of whom are women, are individuals and families who share their homes occasionally to pay for their mortgage, medicine, student loans, or save for retirement. The typical host in New York earns about $5,400 in supplemental income by sharing their home for fewer than three nights a month.”

The resolution with new rules for Airbnb hosts was drafted by Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) and includes limits on advertising, parking and total number of days for guests.

The proposed legislation provides that it’s unlawful for a short-term rental to be in use if the property is not owner-occupied; advertisements must only be filed after the owner has obtained the proper short-term rental permits; it’s unlawful to post signage on the property for advertising purposes; and no property owner can lease their short-term rental for more than 120 days out of the year.

“With the backdrop of public safety, quality of life, and property rights this legislation strikes a balance between someone who plays ‘host’ versus the rights of neighbors to these uses who have an expectation that they live in a residential area.”
—Marc Cuthbertson

Philip Giovanelli, a Cold Spring Harbor resident and Airbnb host said he finds the 120-day limit to be particularly restrictive.

“From a business point of view, it’s possible that if you’re successful that you limit your ability to have guests during the holidays,” Giovanelli said at the meeting. “I wouldn’t want to have to turn down any scientists, particularly a cancer researcher or a DNA researcher because I only have three days left on my calendar.”

Giovanelli suggested a document or form hosts could file if they wanted to extend their limit.

Tara Collier, a Huntington resident and Airbnb host said she also finds the limit to be a problem.

“Huntington is a beautiful place, so let’s share it,” she said at the meeting. “I find that a rental for only one third of the year is quite restrictive and I hope that you will remove it possibly. Maybe there could be a range of different fees you could pay? I would be willing to work with that, I think that would be fair.”

Cuthbertson responded to hosts’ concerns at the meeting.

“You have what is essentially a commercial use which is now going to be allowed in a residential area, and we’re trying to respect the rights of the neighbors who we’re going to say [to them] for 120 days of the year you can operate a commercial entity but we don’t want it to be a lot more than that,” he said. “Is it an arbitrary number? Yes, it is somewhat of an arbitrary number but it’s a number that we think is fair.”

The councilman said in an email finding a balance between hosts and their neighbors is the main objective.

“We have listened to the valuable feedback from the recent public hearing and considered all suggestions and concerns,” Cuthbertson said. “ With the backdrop of public safety, quality of life, and property rights this legislation strikes a balance between someone who plays ‘host’ versus the rights of neighbors to these uses who have an expectation that they live in a residential area.”

Image from Airbnb

Huntington residents came to clear the air at a town board meeting Jan. 11, after Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) and Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) scheduled a public hearing for a resolution to ban the use of short-term rentals like Airbnb in the town.

In the resolution, the town sought to regulate temporary rental properties in order to protect the safety, health and welfare of Huntington residents. The town board “finds the increase in residential homes being rented for short periods of time detrimentally affects the quality of life in the neighborhoods in which they occur,” according to the resolution.

Residents spoke in opposition to the resolution during the hearing.

“I started hosting for economic reasons but have found it to be a very positive experience,” Michael Krasowitz, a Huntington Station resident said. “I feel like I’m an ambassador for the Town of Huntington. When they come I take them in my car, I drive them around, I show them the beaches, the restaurants, and they appreciate that — to learn about the town. For me it’s a way of engaging new people. So far it’s been a positive experience and the people have really enjoyed it.”

Alison Rexler, a former Walt Whitman resident, said Airbnb is more than just an enjoyable way to spend time for her — it’s a necessity to survive.

“I was planning on purchasing my own home and unfortunately my mortgage fell through and I found myself basically homeless,” she said at the meeting. “I have been unable to find a lease in an apartment that would rent for less than a year. Airbnb is my only solution. I have a daughter I would like to be able to visit. I have cats I would like to be able to visit. I have family and friends here. Airbnb has allowed me to stay with my family and friends and stay within the community. Without it I don’t know where I’d be but truly homeless at the moment. It is serving a need that you cannot anticipate.”

Janet Bernardo, a Fort Salonga resident, said her guests help contribute to an increase in revenue for small businesses.

“I am so excited I get to share my space, my home, my view, the marshland, the preserve, all the local stores that my guests go to,” she said. “I can’t imagine any of the local shop owners have any concerns about all these additional people coming into the town. I can’t figure out why the town would want to put a ban on it.”

Before the public hearing, Cuthbertson said he created this proposal in reaction to concerns from residents.

“It came about because of a number of constituent complaints we had received,” he said. “I asked the town attorneys office to draft legislation and frankly the easiest way to draft that legislation was in the most restrictive manner which is a ban.”

He said the town can always reduce the amount of restrictions, but it’s easier for the town to start at a full ban and work its way backward.

“I have a very open mind about something less than a ban,” he said. “We’re here to weigh the quality of life concerns of transient rentals and off street parking and really balance them against I’m sure some of the very good arguments.”

According to the company’s website, Airbnb, which was founded in 2008, is a community marketplace for people to list, discover and book housing accommodations around the world for varying lengths of time.

After hearing reactions from the public, Cuthbertson said he is willing to consider drafting legislation that is not an outright ban.

“Based on the valuable public input we received, I am considering measures that would regulate Airbnb operations instead of banning them all together,” he said in an email. “The town needs to pass legislation that strikes a balance between someone who plays ‘host’ to sharing their residence versus someone who operates as the equivalent of a hotelier. Public safety and quality of life issues will also play an integral part of this legislation.”

No decision has been reached regarding going forward with a ban.