Many NJ towns ban Airbnb, but will that help or hurt residents?


Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich explains why Airbnb and other short-term rental companies are not a fit for the town of Fort Lee on Wednesday, January 11, 2017. Danielle Parhizkaran/

RUTHERFORD — George Albert said his neighbor’s house, rented through Airbnb, has become like a fraternity house.

“This is an absentee landlord, and she is making a lot of money because there are a about a dozen people at a clip staying on this property,” Albert said of the house on Daniel Avenue.

“What is the difference between an Airbnb and a motel being dropped in the middle of a residential neighborhood?,” said Albert.

“It really is a commercial industry. There is no regulation.”

Homeowners on Daniel, Park and Delafield avenues allege other residents are running their homes like hotels, leaving them concerned for their safety. Some Airbnb listings even offered massage services and selling alcohol by the bottle.

In a web-connected age, a growing number of tourists are turning to home-renting services like Airbnb, HomeAway, FlipKey and VRBO to visit the area. This puts municipalities in a difficult position: how do they place restrictions on private residences while not allowing hotels to open in residential-zoned neighborhoods?

And the demand for home-sharing is there. According to Airbnb, Bergen County had 620 active hosts as of Jan. 1, who welcomed 21,200 guests.

Morris County had 100 active hosts as of Jan. 1, hosting 3,300 guests, and Passaic County had 130 active hosts welcoming 6,300 guests.

Fort Lee, Closter, Ridgewood, Wyckoff, Woodcliff Lake, Paramus, Palisades Park and Fairview prohibit short-term rentals under a 30-day period, essentially banning most Airbnb rentals. In justifying the bans, officials in those municipalities cited a rise in noise complaints, sanitation issues, unruly behavior and parking issues.

Rutherford initially sought to prohibit Airbnb last year, but is still on the fence about how to approach transient rentals.

Residents such as Roberta Perez have been protesting to the council for weeks.

“I don’t think anyone has a problem with a homeowner renting a room out to a college student to make ends meet. This should not be compared to an Airbnb, in which the homeowner does not live there but is renting out their home and basement to transients on a daily basis,” said Perez. “It is scary to think Airbnbs could become legal in Rutherford. How on Earth would they be monitored when they are hidden all over town?”

Do municipal bans work?

Bans aren’t necessarily a deterrent.

As of June 1, Fort Lee, Closter, Ridgewood, Wyckoff, Paramus, Palisades Park, Lyndhurst, East Rutherford, Paramus and Fairview all had listings on Airbnb, despite having ordinances prohibiting short-term rentals.

Fairview, Lyndhurst, East Rutherford and Paramus also had listings on HomeAway, a member of the Owners Direct collection of online marketplaces.

The following citations were issued in 2017 and 2018:

  • East Rutherford – 0
  • Fort Lee – 0
  • Lyndhurst – 0
  • Paramus – 0
  • Ridgewood – 0

Woodcliff Lake also hasn’t issued formal citations, said Construction Code Official Nick Saluzzi, maintaining that he prefers to work with homeowners instead.

“We don’t know what’s going on unless someone tells us. Sometimes, the police driving by a particular building will notice that kind of activity, and they will submit a complaint. When we get a complaint, we act on it,” said Saluzzi. “We only had one or two houses in town that were a problem. But so far, it seems to have been all straightened out.”

Convincing homeowners of the new rule took some time, Saluzzi recalled, as they believed renting out rooms was within their rights.

“When you are in a residential district, you are in a residential district,” said Saluzzi. “It’s a balancing act.”

No listings for Woodcliff Lake were found on Airbnb as of June 1.

Wyckoff Zoning Enforcement Officer Fred Depken said his office also doesn’t wish to take an “iron-fisted” approach, especially since he’s received no complaints even before the ordinance went on the books. Right now, unclipped grass and tree maintenance are his office’s big concerns.

The ban is intended to be a proactive measure in case problems do arise, and the office doesn’t have the staff to monitor online marketplaces, said Depken.

While Paramus did not issue any citations, Paramus investigated two complaints in 2017, records indicate.

Lodi intends to join other North Jersey municipalities that prohibit short-term rentals, having introduced an ordinance to ban rentals for fewer than 30 days. A public hearing is scheduled for June 19.

Borough attorney Allen Spinello explained Lodi is responding to complaints it had received about transient tenants, and the introduced ordinance targets online, short-term home rentals.

“We do have strong zoning regulations, and if there is a rental at a property, you see all the smoke detectors certificate. And some people have been circumventing that,” said Spinello at the May meeting.

A Lodi-based “Superhost,” Tess Balagtas, had bad experiences renting the second unit on her two-family house, having to deal with a hoarder and a tenant who skipped out on $8,000 in back rent. After renovating, she joined Airbnb in 2015.

“It helps me pay my mortgage. If they ban it, it’s going to be hard,” said Balagtas. “If it’s about taxes, I don’t mind having to register.”

Renters are primarily medical students on rotation at nearby hospitals, tourists looking to hop the bus into New York City, and out-of-state couples house-hunting in the area. Being a host has allowed her to meet people from around the country and the world, said Balagtas.

Finding a balance

Not every New Jersey municipality seeks to ban home-sharing services.

Jersey City and Newark permit and tax short-term rentals. Brigantine allows homeowners to apply for short-term rental licenses for rentals under 175 consecutive days.

Certain municipalities, like Jersey City and Brigantie, have worked with Airbnb to craft regulations, said Liz DeBold Fusco, Northeast press secretary for Airbnb.

Josh Meltzer, head of northeast policy for Airbnb, said the company recognizes the need for home-sharing regulations.

“That’s why we have worked with more than 400 municipalities to craft policy that fits both the needs of local government as well as those of our local hosts. As a result, we have been able to address transparency and public safety concerns, empower hosts to continue using their homes to make ends meet and help guests to visit new places all over the world,” said Meltzer.

Bergen County

  • 620 active hosts as of Jan. 1, who hosted 21,200 guests
  • 56 percent of hosts are women, and 14 percent are seniors
  • The typical host opened their doors for about 5 nights per month

Morris County

  • 100 active hosts as of Jan. 1, who hosted 3,300 guests
  • 60 percent of hosts are women, and 13 percent are seniors
  • The typical host opened their doors for 3 nights per month

Passaic County

  • 130 active hosts as of Jan. 1, who hosted 6,300 guests
  • 44 percent of hosts are women, and 10 percent are seniors
  • The typical host opened their doors for about 3 nights per month

Airbnb has a “Responsible hosting” page advising hosts to check their local zoning codes first to see whether permits are needed or occupancy taxes apply.

Balagtas said she strives to be responsible and courteous to her Lodi neighbors, designating two spaces in her driveway for guests to use and limiting the number of people who can stay.

Last summer, the Rutherford Council tabled a short-term rental ban after receiving pushback from residents who said they rely on income through transient space marketplaces like Airbnb.

Rutherford is leaning toward regulation, to be equitable to responsible owners and to hold irresponsible owners accountable, said Council President Stephanie McGowan. The borough attorney is reviewing ordinances approved in other towns.

“We are reaching out to those municipalities to really look into what were the pitfalls, were they happy with what they created, did it actually address the problem, or just put something on the books?” said McGowan.

Rutherford Mayor Joe DeSalvo said he’d prefer to see an outright ban.

State slow to act

What authority does the state grant municipalities in regulating transient rentals?

While the Legislature has considered imposing regulations since 2016, all have fizzled out in committees or were vetoed.

Assemby member Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) reintroduced a bill in March permitting towns to license short-term rentals by the owner, or prohibit primary residence property owners from renting through transient space marketplaces. The bill excludes seasonal rentals.

Huttle said her bill’s focus is on quality of life and public safety issues that arise from these types of rentals, and incorporates feedback from local mayors. According to Huttle, municipal officials said they are uncertain what rules they can create, and were looking for guidance.

“Each mayor, whether they wanted to ban it or not, just wanted to be made aware if it was happening in their town,” said Huttle.

The bill would allow hosts to register with the municipality and pay a nominal fee to make sure applicable fire safety measures are being followed and the owner is insured, Huttle said.

“We want business to thrive, but to put regulations into place so that residents and tourists can enjoy the options provided by companies like Airbnb, but not at the expense of neighbors who live there on a permanent basis,” said Huttle. “This would create a baseline registry that municipalities could follow.”

Introduced in January, the bill was referred to the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, where it remains.

Another bill was introduced to the Assembly in January that would have allowed municipalities to impose occupancy taxes on transient rentals in the same way they charge for hotel rooms.

The measure stalled after the State Tax Review Commission recommended in March not to enact it.

The Legislature last year approved a version of the tax bill, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie.