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Rexburg targets Airbnb hosts

Rexburg targets Airbnb hosts

Dustin Hurst
September 7, 2016
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September 7, 2016

Every so often, Bonneville County resident Rebecca Bohman grabs a rag and some cleaning solution and steps out her front door. She closes the door and gives it a quick-once over. She might notice a dirt spot or a skid mark from an errant tennis shoe.

She then gives the door a quick -- though thorough -- cleaning.

While Bohman cares about the general cleanliness of her home, she’s particularly focused on the front door. After all, first impressions matter.

“I want to make a good impression on people who will rate me,” Bohman told IdahoReporter.com.

She’s not participating in a cleanliness contest. Rather, she’s among a growing number of people who offer short-term rentals of their home, or rooms in their home, through the Airbnb website. Bohman wants to ensure that her guests rate her positively after they stay in her home. Even the smallest details, like a dusty front door, get her attention now.

“I wouldn’t do that without Airbnb,” she said of the cleaning ritual.

Airbnb, VRBO and other websites like them have opened a new world of travel adventures, both for traveler and homeowner alike. And it’s catching on. The San Francisco Business Times reported just days ago, Airbnb revenues are likely up 89 percent above the same time last year.

For Rebecca Bohman, her husband Marc, and their four kids, Airbnb has created a new revenue stream for them. It has also provided cultural opportunities for their youth.

The Bohmans launched their Airbnb venture in April and earned $500 the first month. Their revenues shot up during May, June and July, she said, and the family reaped an extra $1,500 each of those months.

“It’s allowed us to do some home renovations,” notes Bohman.

The renting of a room in her home to travelers, which she says only happens because Airbnb provides an easy-to-use portal for home-sharing, also exposes her kids to cultural learning opportunities. The family has hosted guests from the Czech Republic, China and elsewhere across the globe.

“We are amazed by the people who come here,” she said.

The Bohman family resides just outside Ammon city limits, which protects their abode from many regulations that could hurt or end their Airbnb operation. Thus, they’re fortunate that a dusty front door might top their list of Airbnb-related concerns.

Just 28 miles away in Rexburg, Airbnb users have a different, more concerning set of problems.

Last week, EastIdahoNews.com revealed that Rexburg city officials recently sent letters to Airbnb hosts asking most of them to cease their activities. Rexburg’s zoning code forbids short-term rental activity in low-density housing areas, like subdivisions.

Property owners in medium-density zones can offer lodging through Airbnb, but only after they receive approval from the city zoning board.

Those with housing in high-density zones can offer Airbnb rentals without asking the city for permission.

Rexburg City Code Enforcement Officer Natalie Powell said the regulations keep the peace in neighborhoods, where homeowners move in expecting a certain lifestyle.

Airbnb “ends up causing havoc in those neighborhoods,” Powell told IdahoReporter.com last week. Powell said the short-term rentals can cause extra traffic on normally quiet city streets, and can disrupt the tranquility many homeowners seek.

The EastIdahoNews.com story focused on Rexburg’s Indian Hills neighborhood, where some residents complained of large-scale parties and other disturbances they believed were associated with a homeowner’s use of Airbnb.

It’s not the first short-term rental incident to which an Idaho government has responded as services like Airbnb and VRBO grow in popularity. Kootenai County, home to Coeur d’Alene, examined new regulations for short-term rentals after some homeowners there complained last year about a rowdy party at such a rental.

Powell said the city of Rexburg wants to educate residents on the zoning rules, which forbid the practice. She knows some homeowners simply don’t know the regulations, and will stop renting once they learn them.

For Airbnb hosts like Bohman, who see extra revenue from the service, but don’t depend on the cash to live, closing shop might not cause much harm. But for a number of other hosts, that could cause great hardship.

One Rexburg Airbnb host, who asked that IdahoReporter.com not use his name or identifying information for fear of retribution from local officials, said Airbnb is his family’s main source of income. To shut down his short-term rentals, he said, would cause his family great hardship.

He’s exploring his next step, and will fight to keep his doors open to guests.

Powell said options are limited. Property owners in medium-density zones can apply for a conditional use permit and go before the planning and zoning board to plead the case. Those commissioners will assess the property for a number of factors, including adequate parking.

Homeowners in low-density areas have fewer options, Powell said. Rexburg’s zoning code limits low-density dwellings to single-family homes and disabled housing, she said. Some homeowners might be able to apply for a re-zone, but only if their property butts up to a medium- or high-density residential area.

A single homeowner in the middle of a neighborhood would be out of luck, Powell explained.

“You cannot spot-zone,” she said.

The city’s letters to Airbnb hosts have sparked vibrant discussion on Rexburg-area social media pages, with some commenters calling on fellow residents to obey the law. Others wonder if the city’s code violates property rights.

City officials will likely hear some feedback Wednesday night during the regularly scheduled Rexburg City Council meeting. The issue isn’t on the agenda, but the council offers a short time for public comment during each meeting.

Residents and interested parties will likely have more time during the council’s Sept. 21 meeting, where councilors will make the Airbnb issue a full-fledged agenda item.

Though Rebecca Bohman and her family would likely benefit from Rexburg officials hammering down on Airbnb offerings within city borders, she’s not cheering for that. She believes the financial and cultural benefits outweigh the potential costs.

“I think the world be better if there were more Airbnbs around,” Bohman said.

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