Short-term rental services, such as those booked on AirBnB, will be subject to regulation from the City of Fitchburg starting July 1.
The Common Council updated its room tax and permit ordinance to cover such rentals, which are increasingly popular all over the country, at its Jan. 28 meeting.
The change provides oversight on rentals of 28 days or fewer and gives the city the ability to cite hosts who are in violation of the policy. It defines occupancy requirements and enforces public health standards.
Mayor Aaron Richardson and Alds. Janell Rice (Dist. 4) and Julia Arata-Fratta (D-2) had worked on the ordinance since last summer, after concerns were brought forward by Seminole Forest neighborhood residents.
Starting July 1, short-term rental hosts will be required to be licensed and undergo inspections from both the city and the county, which enforces state regulations.
As a part of that license, any rental should also be used as the primary residence for the license holder and meet all public health regulations. That effectively outlaws the purchase of properties solely to use as rentals.
Requiring license holders to live in the property they’re renting out allows for them to provide their neighbors with peace of mind, Arata-Fratta said.
“If I am renting, for example, my basement – I live in the house, it’s my primary residency … I am doing a screening of the people that I bring into my house,” she said.
City licenses fees will be $100 to cover the cost of the building inspection, and licenses can be revoked if violations are not remedied.
Another reason for the ordinance was to ensure room tax fees for Fitchburg rentals go to the city, Richardson said. AirBnB is supposed to collect hotel room taxes on properties, which are then given to a city and its tourism bureau, but with many Fitchburg residents having a Madison ZIP code, he said it’s likely some of the tax money has been going to Madison.
Ald. Tom Clauder (D-4) was concerned the ordinance didn’t go far enough but still voted in favor.
Initially, he told the rest of the council he was a “no” vote, complaining that not regulating them more was effectively approving their use. When Richardson and Ald. Dan Bahr (D-2), who is the government affairs associate for the Wisconsin Counties Association, explained that such uses can’t be banned because state law allows them to operate, Clauder eventually indicated support for the ordinance but wondered if the licensing fee was high enough.
“It seems weak to me,” he said. “I don’t want this next to me, and I know my neighbors don’t.”
Ald. Dorothy Krause (D-1) suggested that if rules were too tight, people would avoid licensing, and Ald. Julia Arata Fratta said some short term rentals are simply less expensive options for people staying at the hospital.
Krause asked whether the city could partner with the county so only one inspection would be needed. Doug Voegeli director of Public Health Madison and Dane County’s environmental health division, said his department would not have the authority to look at non-health issues and has no enforcement over zoning or parking.
The City of Madison is considering tighter regulations on short-term rental hosts. In addition to an inspection, City of Madison license holders would need to provide addresses and license plate information for each guest and provide proof that the short-term rental is the host’s primary address.
Fitchburg’s ordinance update was partly inspired by the experiences of Fitchburg residents who claimed they had their Seminole Forest cul-de-sac turned into a “party” destination for five months starting in March 2019.
Laura Olsen, who lives in the Seminole Forest neighborhood, said the home next to hers was marketed as an AirBnB during that time as a location that could accommodate 16 people.
That was too many people for the size of the home, she said, and the renters did not follow any public health standards for the duration of its operation.
With large groups of people coming to the neighborhood every weekend, Olsen said, it prevented her family and her neighbors from being able to enjoy their weekends at home.
“The cycle quickly became frustrating, exasperating and completely changed the very character of our neighborhood,” she said.Olsen’s next-door neighbor, Dan Johnson, said because of the condensed nature of a cul-de-sac, what happens on one property can affect the others.
The AirBnB renter “played Monopoly” with their cul-de-sac for months by making money off of it, he said, telling alder he wants to see regulations where both license holders and neighbors in the area know the rules.
“(AirBnB’s) can be lovely, used under the proper circumstances – this was not one of those circumstances,” he said. “Quite frankly, I think the AirBnB model is being bastardized by people who are using it to literally just pick up properties here, there and everywhere.”