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Airbnb launches new campaign to fight proposed Seattle rental restrictions

Airbnb has launched a series of commercials on TV, radio and online to counter efforts by the Seattle City Council to restrict short-term rentals. (Airbnb via You Tube)

Turn on the TV or radio this month, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear or see a commercial touting the benefits of Airbnb, the upstart online property rental platform.

Each ad features an actual Seattle homeowner who rents property to people on Airbnb.

It’s just the latest skirmish in a months-long battle between the Seattle City Council and people who rent their properties for short-term stays. At issue is whether property owners should be able to rent their properties any way they want or be restricted by a council seeking to protect long-term affordable housing.

“We want to ensure policy-makers in the community understand who these Airbnb hosts are and get to know the every day Seattle-ite this ordinance will effect,” said Laura Rillos, a spokesperson for Airbnb.

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The ordinance she’s referring to would impose new regulations on short-term rentals offered on services like Airbnb and VRBO. It would require business licenses and create new taxes.

For those offering short-term rentals in their primary residences, there would be little change beyond a new license needed for places being rented for more than 90 nights in a year. But the big sticking point is a prohibition on people offering short-term rentals at properties other than their primary residences.

Sponsors, including Mayor Ed Murray and council member Tim Burgess, say the new restrictions are needed to force property owners to put their units back into the long-term rental housing market, helping alleviate the current shortage. And they say the regulations would only impact a small number of Airbnb operators.

But the company and property owners argue the regulations are unfair and would have virtually no impact on Seattle’s housing stock — because short-term rentals only comprise about 1 percent of the city’s housing inventory.

“We think it’s important as the city council is debating this issue to not legislate to the extremes but to create regulation for the way a vast majority of people are using the Airbnb platform in Seattle,” Rillos said.

Rillos says the company is spending “six figures” on the new campaign.

The spots feature three different Seattle residents espousing the benefits of short-term rentals. None of them mention whether they rent in their own homes or separate properties. But all tout how the extra income allows them to afford to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive city they’d otherwise have to leave. And they emphasize the economic benefit to neighborhood businesses when short-term renters come to stay.

The campaign comes as the city continues to seek solutions for skyrocketing housing costs and a significant shortage of affordable units.

One recent study by Puget Sound Sage says Seattle needs at least 50,000 new housing units by 2025. And advocates of the new regulations, like council member Mike O’Brien, argue protecting every potential housing unit for long-term rentals is critical.

But other experts argue restricting short-term rentals would have no impact on the shortage, acting more like an inflated balloon — stick your finger in and it’ll just move the air somewhere else. The people seeking short-term stays would simply go to a hotel instead.

And if you increase the demand for hotel rooms, then more hotels get built — further cutting into the land that could be used for affordable-housing development. Many also argue that property owners should be able to do what they please with their own property.

In a related note, groundbreaking is scheduled for today on a new affordable-housing development in South Lake Union. The 71-unit building will offer rents at approximately half the average current market rates in the area, ranging from $840 to $1,200 a month. Rentals will be limited to households with incomes of up to $37,000 for individuals, and $43,000 for families. It’s being paid for by the city’s new affordable-housing levy.

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