Take My Council, Please: A Breath of Fresh Airbnb…
SPRINGFIELD—After a years-long pursuit, the City Council approved funding for the institution of body-worn cameras for the Springfield Police Department. The funds, in the form of a bond, were among the final steps necessary to begin the program, which will require officers to wear cameras that will record interactions with the public. In addition to the bonding, the city is receiving a grant from the feds and will carry additional, ongoing costs through the budget.
In addition to the body cameras, the Council also passed first step on an ordinance to regulate short-term rentals, such as those provided by Airbnb. The ordinance’s principal goal is to set minimum standards for so-called “transient” rentals, which include hotels and bed & breakfasts. However, it could also have the effect of curtailing the purchase and use of homes solely for the purpose of utilizing them as short-term rentals.
Councilors Kateri Walsh and Marcus Williams were absent from the meeting.
The meeting Monday took place before a slew of restrictions were put in place to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Still somewhat upbeat about their activity after striking a deal with Mayor Domenic Sarno on facial recognition, councilors were quite positive about the twin big-ticket moves Monday. While approval of the body camera funds essentially leaves it Pearl Street and the mayor for the program rollout, the short-term rental bill requires another reading before passage.
Elsewhere in the meeting, the Council took in reports of committee and approved minutes from prior meetings. It also received Comptroller Pat Burns’s monthly revenue and expenditures report. Burns had said the city was doing fairly well with its budget. Though this could be upended by COVID-19, much of the city’s revenue is not consumer spending-based. Disruptions to state revenue could affect funds from the commonwealth.
The Council approved petitions for parking changes in the Liberty Heights neighborhood, but sent utility reports to committee.
Also approved were grants for traffic enforcement and census participation as well as small grants for Elder Affairs, Fire, Health and Library departments.
The Council enthusiastically authorized grant funding for the body-worn camera program. The bond was for $1.7 million dollars according to Jennifer Leydon, who works on financial issues for the Police Department. It will be paired with a $1.2 million grant from the US Department of Justice. The city will put in another $1.3 million over 5 years for personnel.
Leydon said details remained including bringing the program into compliance with the patrolmen’s collective bargaining agreement. Officers will activate and tag their recording to correspond with their reports. The data will be managed by a subdivision of the record’s unit. This subdivision will be led by a lieutenant and run with civilian staff. She explained that there will be three civilian staff who will handle redactions of the video as needed.
Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos feted the program’s progress. He noted that shortly after he joined the Council in 2014, the Council was presented with a patrolmen labor contract that included hope, but not assurance of a body camera program. Ramos was among those who pressed the issue at succeeding Council meetings. Eventually, the city and the department’s bargaining units were able to reach an agreement on how to move forward.
“We’re finally here,” said Ramos, who is also a candidate for state rep.
Much of the delay in recent months has been developing the program itself, which, as Leydon said, involved looking at peer cities like Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Councilor peppered Leydon with a few questions and recognized Ramos for his efforts, but approval came unanimously.
Before reaching the short-term rental ordinance, the Council approved minor traffic changes along Hall of Fame Avenue (West Columbus) and Lyman Street, near Union Station. These were for the food truck ordinance. It also greenlit payment of a prior year’s bill and transfer of an abutting lot to an owner on Locust Street.
The Council also gave final passage to an update to the city’s outdoor restaurant seating ordinance.
The short-term rental ordinance was a bit bumpier, but it did pass first step for passage. Originally, the overall issue consisted of three parts. However, at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman, the lead sponsor, withdrew the acceptance of state laws. One, related to the collection of the hotel tax on short-term rentals, was unnecessary, Lederman said. Purveyors like Airbnb must already collect the hotel tax, including any local option.
The other withdrawn item concerned additional fess, but Lederman said that this was not necessary at this time and entailed several regulations
The ordinance itself required several modifications. Most were technical in nature and were discussed in committee, but under Council rules, amendments can only be passed on the floor of the full Council.
As amended, the ordinance sets minimum standards for inspections, health and safety, and parking available at short-term rental. The push for the ordinance came from residents, who worried about the increasing number of homes being rented out through Airbnb and others.
The bill limits the renting of whole apartments or houses all year round. In other words, the rented units must be owner-occupied at least part time. This is somewhat more faithful to Airbnb’s original mission of unit residents, in effect, subletting parts of their home to travelers. The ordinance does offer some flexibility for owners of a multiple family dwelling if they live in one of the units.
However, many individuals own one or more whole units and essentially operate them as hotels. This happens in places like Springfield. However, it has come under greater scrutiny in cities facing housing crunches as the units are essentially removed from the available housing stock for residents of those cities.
“I think this is a fantastic development,” Lederman said of homeowners’ interest in renting part of their homes. However, he noted that the city has regulated such changing uses before. Indeed, references to transient occupancy already exist in city zoning with respect to hotels and bed & breakfasts (which is what the bnb of Airbnb stand for).
While the concern for removing housing from the city’s stock exists, it is part of a wider concern that neighborhoods remain residential in nature. Large homes in McKnight district increasingly host short-term rentals and residents do not want streets to turn into rows or mini hotels. Lederman said this bill would deter such mass conversions.
However, the Council had to plod through ten amendments that did everything from clarify the definition of a booking agent—i.e. the means to rent the unit—to mandating the posting of safety information in the rental space.
At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield asked Lederman if the $200 inspection fee were sufficient given the examinations city staff would have to do. He replied that it was just a starting point and the issue could be revisited later.
The Council passed first step on a voice vote. There were subcommittee meetings planned on the subject, though the rise of COVID-19 as an issue could deter immediate action and thus passage at the next full Council meeting. The mayor’s position on the bill is unclear, but sponsors believe they can override a veto if necessary.
The Council opted to keep two final two pieces of legislation—benefits for city employees on active military duty and snowstorm parking ban changes—in committee.
Even as the Council was meeting Monday, the threat of COVID-19, a coronavirus that can cause lethal respiratory problems, was growing. Council President Justin Hurst said the body will avail itself of other liberties allowed under Governor Charlie Baker’s executive order waiving certain open meeting law requirements.
The body has not completely shut down as of Friday, but its schedule is limited, mirroring other restrictions Sarno announced Friday. Several meetings have been cancelled or consolidated through May. It may only be a matter of time before additional restrictions curtail the Council and other organs of city government further.