The thing that attracts visitors to vacation rentals — the ability to “disappear” into the local community and find a genuine island experience — is exactly why these accommodations are so concerning now, mid-pandemic.
Worry about the spread of COVID-19 has sparked a renewed effort, statewide, to bring vacation rentals under tighter control.
That initiative now takes the form of House Bill 460, which was rewritten in a “gut and replace” move to make it a measure that empowers counties to assemble a registry of vacation rentals.
They could do so using data from a “place of stay declaration form” all travelers to Hawaii would complete upon arrival, in which the precise address of the rental is disclosed.
The general concept is a good one. Counties have needed a way to track which vacation rentals are legal to enforce zoning regulations.
The proliferation of illegal vacation rentals has caused strain in communities, especially on Oahu. Local community leaders have complained about the clash between tourists on vacation and the permanent residents, as well as the loss of long-term rental inventory.
However, gut-and-replace maneuvers do circumvent the usual public input process; ideally, this would be addressed in the next full session.
In the coming months the state already has, through emergency orders based on protection of public health, a disclosure form for tracking visitors in case of COVID-19 infections.
It’s not a perfect system. A guest staying in a short-term rental, especially one without an on-site proprietor or contact, can evade tracking by those enforcing the current 14-day quarantine for new arrivals to the state.
Once the pandemic is under control, however, defending the disclosure of information to county authorities, regardless of public-health concerns, will surely generate further legal debates.
In written testimony submitted on HB 460, Senate Draft 1, vacation rental hosts as well as representatives of booking platforms such as Airbnb and the Expedia- owned Vrbo.com site have protested loudly that the information-gathering would compromise privacy rights.
The bill also would enable counties to remove any listing that is not on a county list of legal rentals, but most of the opposing testimony focused on the privacy issue.
Although the economic impact from the tourism shutdown has been devastating, that doesn’t negate the need for controls of short-term rentals. On Oahu, city officials expect to release draft rules to govern newly legal bed-and-breakfast rentals.
That process should continue so that a hearing can be held as scheduled later this summer, and new permits to be issued after October.
Meanwhile, Airbnb and Expedia have been talking with Kauai County about a memorandum of understanding on how the platforms could cooperate with the counties on enforcement.
And the mayors of Kauai, the Big Island and Maui decided on June 16 to allow legal vacation rentals to reopen to guests who do not have to quarantine.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell rightly opted to hold the line on even the city’s permitted rentals, preferring for now to keep visitors under closer watch at hotels — and the expected uptick in cases under control.
But starting Aug. 1, the state has pledged to waive the quarantine for those who test negative for the coronavirus about 72 hours before arriving. Once trans-Pacific travel reopens, there’s no justification to bar Oahu’s legal vacation rentals from business.
The longer-term project should remain a front-burner matter for state and county lawmakers: tightening needed regulation of vacation rentals. The wild-west days of property owners flouting the zoning laws must end now.