NEWPORT — While people who already operate short-term rentals in the city’s residential zones are still able to do so after the City Council’s decision to ban them on Wednesday, residents renting out their homes are still concerned about the future of their guest houses.
“The income from the Airbnb is not extra money. It’s our livelihood,” said Newport resident and Airbnb owner Meg Nelson. “If this got taken away, it would be the same as getting fired from my job.”
The City Council unanimously approved two ordinances to amend the city’s zoning code during the meeting, though Councilor Angela McCalla was absent. The ordinances effectively ban the operation of short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods throughout the city.
Breaking down what the City Council approved in regards to short-term rentals
The first ordinance, which passed with no discussion, adds the term “short-term rental” to the code’s definitions and has it refer to the code’s regulations for “guest houses.” The city has been using the code’s definition for “guest houses” to regulate rentals with leases under 30 days for years, referring to the section to make decisions when property owners propose to operate a short-term rental in the city.
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The second adopted ordinance impacts where these guest houses can operate. The city allows property owners to maintain short-term rentals, or guest houses, in the city’s five commercial districts “by-right,” meaning property owners in those areas only need to register their short-term rentals with the city to start operation.
However, prior to the council adopting the new ordinances Wednesday, the city also allowed properties in four residential districts — R3, R10, R20 and R40 — to operate as short-term rentals as long as they received approval for a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Review.
The review process for these permits would allow the Zoning Board to approve or deny short-term rentals and attach conditions to their permits, such as a time frame for renewal.
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The second ordinance also requires short-term rentals in the city’s Limited Business District on Lower Thames Street, one of the commercial zones where they were permitted “by-right,” to now acquire a special-use permit.
‘We’re in a city, everyone. This isn’t Newport Town, this is The City of Newport’
While the second reading for the ordinances was not a public hearing, the council opened the floor for comment from members of the public. One of the residents who came forward, Brandon Pico, has an application open with the Zoning Board of Review to operate an Airbnb in his two-family property on Marchant Street, where he also lives.
He asked City Council if it had any data or experts to speak on the housing issues the council used to argue against short-term rentals, saying the percentage of short-term rentals compared to the overall number of dwelling units in the city is too small to be the primary cause of Newport’s dwindling available housing stock.
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“There definitely needs to be some better regulation and restrictions on who is doing short-term rentals and/or how much harm they have in this community, because I also hear the neighborhood fabric is being torn from us, it’s being changed,” Pico said. “We’re in a city, everyone. This isn’t Newport Town, this is The City of Newport. If you want that cul-de-sac, ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ white-picket fence, it’s out there in Portsmouth or maybe Middletown. But this is a city.”
Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano objected to Pico’s statement, saying she’s watched houses in the city undergo sudden renovations because people from out of town have the money to flip the properties and turn them into vacation rentals, whereas before there were more owner-occupied rentals on the market.
Napolitano pointed to the newly opened The Calvert apartments — which already has rented out all 36 apartments despite the $1,800 price tag for a one-bedroom — as evidence there is still a demand for more housing in the city.
“There are families in this city,” Napolitano said. “We are the second-highest in the state for subsidized housing, and it’s at 15%. That’s very high, and affordable housing means something different to everybody … It’s relative to the different people what’s affordable, unfortunately, but one thing I am proud of: We have the best affordable housing in the state because we’ve made an effort to do that.”
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Napolitano said “not everyone has to live exactly where they’re working,” and Newport “is built out,” to counter residents who have argued the city has become too expensive to live in for people who make under a certain income.
She said she would like to see other communities make a similar effort to build affordable housing for the families who need it.
“After Vietnam, after World War II, they built places,” Napolitano said. “They haven’t done it since, and we have a lot of families around who would love a nice home that’s affordable.”
Planning Board had given a negative recommendation to the ordinances approved by the City Council
Pico and Nelson also argued their short-term rentals allow to afford to live in Newport. Without them, they’d be forced to move away due to the rising cost of living in the area. Nelson is a Newport native who operates an Airbnb alongside her father out of their family home. She said the money earned from the rental is their main source of income.
She asked if the council considered exceptions for long-term residents with active special-use permits to run owner-occupied rentals. City Solicitor Behan later confirmed special-use permits are tied to a property, not individuals, and therefore can’t have provisions related to the owner.
The way the Zoning Board of Review has been able to avoid properties remaining as short-term rentals after they have changed owners is by applying expiration dates as conditions to some permits.
Expiration dates on AirBnb permits
One such permit belongs to Liam McDermott, who runs an Airbnb off Old Fort Road with his aunt. The special-use permit he acquired expires after five years, which means he will no longer be able to renew the permit upon the ordinance adoption. However, after quickly reviewing the permit conditions, Behan said it’s possible the Zoning Board reserved the right to renew the permit after the five years are over.
When the ordinances went before the Planning Board on March 7, it voted to submit a negative recommendation, saying they were not enough to solve the underlying issue of short-term rentals.
The board requested the City Council order a study on guest houses and their impact on Newport’s housing stock and asked the council to form a subcommittee with the board to rewrite the guest house section of the zoning code entirely.
During the City Council’s first reading of the ordinances on March 9, Behan called the Planning Board’s decision surprising and said the city would not benefit from another study on the issue, as the staff has been looking into the topic for years. The council approved the ordinances on first reading unanimously.