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Room for Improvement: Critics say overnight room rental rules don’t protect public health 

Concerns have sparked county officials to look more closely at undocumented room rental operations in private homes all over Bend and the surrounding area.

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Pegi Malnik’s scenic property just east of Bend appears to be the perfect setting for a bed and breakfast. Her 2.5 acres boast a small pond, a gazebo covered in hop vines, a fire pit for roasting marshmallows and a pasture filled with wildflowers and honeybee boxes.

The guests who’ve stayed at her “B and B Reimagined” for between $70 and $86 a night, love it, too, saying on the room rental website that her property is “top notch” and she is the “perfect hostess.”

But just over her fences, the neighbors of the Misty Meadows subdivision don’t see a picturesque oasis. Instead, they view her unlicensed room rental operation as a Deschutes County code violation that’s marring the neighborhood and creating a safety hazard.

Their concerns have sparked county officials to look more closely at undocumented room rental operations in private homes all over Bend and the surrounding area.

Helped along by popular websites such as Airbnb, where vacationers can find cheap overnight rates in private homes, now anyone with an Internet connection can hang out a virtual shingle and go into business housing and feeding guests.

Over the last few months, the number of rooms for rent on Airbnb alone has lept from a handful to nearly 70, said several people who have been monitoring the site.

The city of Bend and Deschutes County each have rules to govern overnight accommodations. For instance, the county defines a bed and breakfast as an operation with three rooms or more that serves breakfast. The owners of these operations must obtain a food service license and a tourism facility license. They must obtain some kind of land use permit. They must pay transient room taxes.

But the application of city and county rules becomes murkier for people offering just one or two rooms a night. And recently both agencies have discovered that a large number of people offering these kinds of ad-hoc bed and breakfasts are not charging required transient room taxes, they aren’t obtaining necessary landuse permits and, because they do not technically fit the definition of bed and breakfast, there are no current requirements for food and lodging licenses.

This is a problem for people like the neighbors of Pegi Malnik.

“We are outraged that she is apparently being allowed by the County to operate in the interim without a conditional use permit, any fire and health and safety inspections and or licenses,” her neighbors told the county planning department in a July 17 joint letter. “An unregulated accommodation industry is being introduced into unsuspecting neighborhoods by operations such as Pegi’s and the Airbnb listing service.”

Public safety on the line

This is nothing less than a public safety concern, said Steve Keifer with the Oregon Health Authority, which is responsible for regulating bed and breakfasts in Oregon.

“There are probably people who wouldn’t wash the sheets if we didn’t make them,” said Keifer.

Places renting rooms and serving food may also contend with any number of other public health issues including rodents, bedbugs, fire safety, food borne illnesses and proper sanitation, said Eric Mone, an environmental health specialist with Deschutes County.

The trouble with unlicensed and unregulated room rental operations in private homes is that homeowners may have zero experience dealing with these public health matters and, if they are only offering one or two rooms, no one is overseeing their work.

“If you are staying at someone’s house and you don’t know them, you would like to believe that the rooms are clean and that the food is not going to make your family sick,” said Mone. “If you wanted to ask, is a licensed bed and breakfast safer for the public than an unlicensed B and B, I would say yes, because we are providing assurances and education.”

But because both Deschutes County and the city of Bend define a single family dwelling as one where up to three people who are unrelated to the property owner may stay each night, these quasi-hotel operations are exempt from oversight.

In fact, there are only three bed and breakfasts licensed in Deschutes County, said Mone—the Lara House, the Mill Inn in Bend and the Blue Spruce in Sisters.

The rest of the 70 rooms available as overnight accommodations on the Airbnb site, skirt the rules requiring licensing and permitting by having only a few guests at a time, or by only offering one to two rooms for rent at a time.

Because all this is happening under the roof of a private home, it’s nearly impossible for officials to monitor whether these people who appear to be just skirting the rules ever actually cross the line of three guests per night, triggering the need for a land use permit and possibly the technical bed and breakfast rules that would require licenses.

Code enforcement officials at both the city and the county said that, in a time of tight budgets, devoting resources to investigating is out of the question.

“I’ve long thought that there are many bed and breakfasts out there. But we have better things to do than run around and try to find all of them when we are trying so hard to get into all the other facilities that are licensed,” said Mone of the many other larger restaurants and tourism operations in the county.

Striking the right balance

Pegi Malnik’s neighbors aren’t the first to raise concerns about sites such as Airbnb, VRBO or HomeAway. Across the country, people are reporting to media their annoyance at strangers coming and going and loud unknown guests. City officials are concerned about zoning violations, how to enforce room tax collection, and distruptions to housing and rental markets by the surge in popularity of renting overnight rooms through these kinds of sites.

But Malnik says she has done everything she can to appease her neighbors—she’s beautified her property, pulled knapweed by hand, moved the honeyboxes when someone complained. She’s put safety strips on stairs, is adding a handrail near a stepdown in the living room, and says she wants to comply with the county’s rules about overnight rentals in every way.

After a meeting with county officials last week, Malnik says she understands now that she will not be technically in violation of the county’s code if she limits her guests to just three a night.

“It shouldn’t be offensive to anybody,” she said of her business. “I am willing to comply because this is a dream of mine. I am doing absolutely everything I can to make sure that this place is safe and respectable for my guests.”

Ultimately, the issue here is a question of balance between free use of personal property and public health and safety. Proponents of using homes for room rentals believe there is value to the community, not just to their own bottom lines.

Malnik believes she’s boosting the tourism industry by offering her rooms. And, if she does limit her overnight guests, she will be within the law. She believes the balance is fair, even if her neighbors don’t.

The big question for city and county officials is whether they do.

A whole bunch of people are now renting rooms in Bend and Deschutes County with the help of websites like Airbnb.

Most of these operations are unlicensed, unpermitted and operating without any oversight at all. For the most part, it’s legal under city and county code despite potential food, sanitation and fire safety issues.

The Rules:

• People may rent out one or two rooms in their private home every night to up to a total of three people per night without a license or permit of any kind.

• If a property owner rents to more than three people per night, they must go through a county landuse permitting process that can be costly.

• If a person is renting three or more rooms per night and serving breakfast they must obtain a conditional use permit for roughly $2,000, a $375 bed and breakfast restaurant license and a $135 tourist facility license.

• In Bend, people renting out entire vacation homes either through a website or a property management company must obtain a land use permit that ensures adequate parking and a maximum occupancy for homes. Violators can incur a $750 a day fine for not obtaining the land use permit.

• All people renting rooms of any number must register with the county or city and collect transient room taxes.

Source: Deschutes County Code, city of Bend code, county and city staff.

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