City regulates short-term rental businesses

Short-term rental houses have recently disrupted some single-family neighborhoods in Kirkland and in response to community outcry, the City Council quickly passed an ordinance regulating the business practice.

The ordinance defines a short-term rental as a rental agreement that lasts for less than 30 days. Short-term rental agreements in Kirkland are now limited to 12o days total per property per year, with a maximum of two simultaneous agreements per property. Additionally, the landlords, or an authorized agent, are required to live in the property for 245 days out of the year.

These regulations are a direct response to specific community cases involving landlords who abuse the short-term rental business model and leave their neighbors to live with numerous disruptive tenants.

The units in question

Many short-term rentals in Kirkland are run by community members who own property or have an extra room and want to rent their extra space to tourists as an alternative to hotels.

However, some landlords found loopholes in the lack of regulations and instead, operated their properties like small hotels.

“It’s a three-bedroom home (and) he’s renting it as a five-bedroom hotel essentially,” said resident Andrew Klein about his next-door neighbor.

Another Kirkland landlord renovated their property and divided it into several small units with numbered exterior doors.

“It even stopped looking like a house,” said Eric Shields, planning and building director for the city. “It (looks) more like a little apartment building.”

According to Klein, the property in his neighborhood had a daily turnover rate, with 12-15 people coming and going throughout the day.

The property borders Klein’s home and they share a driveway, which creates problems as his vehicle often gets blocked in by several others.

“I need to call the police on a semi-regular basis to deal with people blocking driveways (and) people who are just unfamiliar with the area, trespassing onto our property,” he said.

Klein admits that most short-term tenants are polite people, estimating that about one out of 10 cause issues with neighbors. But because of landlords who abuse the system and bring in dozens of new tenants in every week, Klein and other community members advocated for new regulations.

“My wife, who drives a black car, (and) I’ll admit this is kind of a hilarious story,” Klein said. “(The tenants) actually thought that she was the Uber arriving to come pick them up and…my two year old daughter was in the car (while) we had some strangers trying to open the doors of the car and get in while (my wife) was backing down her own driveway.”

TOO MUCH, TOO QUICKLY

Previously, there were no city codes directly regulating short-term rentals and the city wasn’t particularly interested in actively enforcing them. According to Shields, it would’ve been difficult with their limited tools.

Prior to the new ordinance, the city could only address these practices through noise complaints, unrelated residents zoning codes, parking and traffic concerns and exterior property maintenance.

While these loopholes were abused by a few landlords, many used the short-term rental business for years with no complaints and worked closely with their neighbors instead of neglecting them.

Jill Hancock manages two short-term rental homes in Kirkland and neither are her primary residence. She opposes the new ordinance because it’s harmful to legitimate operations, such as her own.

“It’s not fair to penalize well-run short-term rentals because of a few unscrupulous landlords,” she said. “A couple of single regulations can prevent problems without shutting down everyone.”

These well-practiced property owners are concerned that council acted too quickly with this ordinance and should have refined it to protect their own legitimate businesses, while still regulating the loopholes.

Kirkland resident, Karen Story, supports the intent behind the ordinance but specifically opposes the primary residence requirement, which she believes is too harsh for landlords like Hancock.

“It’s a 50-pound hammer for a 10-pound problem,” she said. “It’s simply not good policy to enact such sweeping regulations without more public notice and more public input.”

Ordinance proponents, such as Klein and his neighbors, said they believe that requiring landlords or their agents to live on the properties isn’t as difficult as it sounds and that it provides immediate accountability.

“If there’s no one who is there, who is accountable and who lives in the property to help guide the people…and to help work through any problems…then you really don’t have any way to solve these issues,” he said.

According to Klein, these new regulations already existed for traditional bed and breakfasts and accessory dwelling units, so landlords who operate in single-family zoned areas should have similar regulations.

“I get that some of these business already exist,” Klein said. “But they’ve been existing in a loophole that hasn’t been closed, and I think it’s (council’s) job to close that loophole.”

Moving forward

Usually, council will spend from six months to a year listening to the community through public hearings before implementing an ordinance, said Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen.

“We did do this in a hurry,” she said. “We always complain about the government being slow, this was a case where the government was responsive and it moved quickly to solve a problem.”

Council saw this situation as an urgent public safety issue and, according to Walen, they were clear that this was meant to quickly solve the immediate problem, while allowing the council to revisit the issue.

“We can come back and say, ‘Ok, this part is not working. Let’s fix it,’” she said. “We’re absolutely open to that, we’re still getting feedback, we’re listening to that feedback and we can adjust our rules as necessary.”

The city’s planning department will monitor and evaluate how the ordinance impacts the community and address opponents’ concerns. Shields said they plan to work with responsible landlords to potentially loosen the regulations where they may be too strict.

“I’d love to talk to a few of those folks to understand a little bit more how they operate,” he said. “So that if we do make changes…we make the changes that wouldn’t ensnare those kind of people in overzealous enforcement (but wouldn’t) open it up for those people who are exploiting it.”

Walen said she is proud of the work her staff did and that it attempted to strike a balance by only requiring primary residency for 245 days and allowing landlords to instead use an authorized agent.

“I think we’ve done a decent job of balancing the needs of people who want to rent out a room or two or want to rent out their home for three months,” she said. “What we’ve prohibited, is the situation I described before, where there’s no owner or occupier anywhere near the house. The whole thing is operated remotely and there’s absolutely no one the neighbors can go to with concerns.”

The ordinance requires that city staff provide an update on the regulations’ impact along with recommendations for improvement by July, 15 2018.

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