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Oahu vacation rental permits could be delayed

The city’s plan to issue roughly 1,700 short-term vacation rental permits will be postponed under a bill moving through the City Council.

The bill also appears to have the consent of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration.

The city last year adopted a new law that cracks down on vacation rentals but also calls for the Department of Planning and Permitting to begin issuing permits for bed-and-breakfast establishments starting Oct. 1. Those permits would be the first issued for vacation rentals on Oahu since 1989.

But Bill 50, introduced earlier this month by Council Zoning Chairman Ron Menor, pushes back the start date for permits by four months until Jan. 31. The bill was given preliminary approval by the Zoning and Planning Committee last week and will likely be taken up next by the full Council on Aug. 12.

The permits will be available only for those operating “bed-and-breakfast”-type vacation rentals, which are those that are hosted and have an owner or operator on-site. The law does not allow for transient vacation units, or “whole home” vacation rentals, where the renter has the run of a property and no owner or operator is present.

The 1,700 permits would be split up evenly around the island based on already existing development plan regions. The one exception is the North Shore Sustainable Communities Plan region, where no new B&Bs will be allowed.

Menor said given the concerns about community spread of COVID-19, Oahu residents “would be especially concerned if we were to allow visitors to stay in approximately 1,700 new bed-and-breakfast accommodations where these visitors would be allowed to circulate in residential neighborhoods throughout our island.”

The city also has had difficulty enforcing the year-old vacation rental law, so it may not be justifiable to allow more at this juncture, he said Wednesday.

The pandemic also has forced residents to reconsider the state’s economic reliance on the visitor industry, as well as the negative effects of tourism on cultural and environmental resources, Menor said.

“In this regard, I think it would be beneficial to pause or delay the issuance of registrations of new bed-and-breakfast accommodations and take the time to assess the future course and direction of our tourism market,” he said.

Kathy Sokugawa, DPP acting director, said her agency does not oppose Menor’s bill.

“We had a couple glitches finalizing the rules; it’s going to be very tight if we move forward with October,” Sokugawa said.

It also may be difficult for those seeking the permits to be able to obtain all the required documents needed to qualify when many government offices are closed or allow only limited access to the public, she said.

The economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic also might make it difficult for people to determine whether a bed-and-breakfast establishment makes sense for them, she said.

Several dozen people have submitted written testimony on Menor’s bill, with an overwhelming majority supporting a delay in issuing B&B permits.

A spokesman for Air-bnb said the vacation rental advertising platform giant is disappointed the bill is advancing.

Matt Middlebrook, Airbnb’s head of policy in Hawaii, said his company has repeatedly offered to help set up a notice and takedown system. “Alternative accommodations will play an essential role in helping the Hawaii economy recover, and local residents depend on the income,” Middlebrook said.

Meantime, an organization representing legal vacation rental companies sent a letter to Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Monday urging him to allow them to open for business in the same manner as hotels and resorts.

The Hawaii Legal Short-Term Rental Alliance, which states that it represents 60 rental management companies and the owners and/or operators of 1,500 legal short-term rentals, pointed out that vacation rentals in Maui, Hawaii and Kauai counties have all allowed vacation rentals to reopen.

“Legal vacation rentals should immediately be declared a permissible lodging of choice for residents of Oahu and for inter-island travelers who wish to ‘staycation’ with their families on Oahu and who are not subject to the mandatory 14-day trans-Pacific quarantine,” said Greg Kugle, attorney for the alliance, which obtained nonprofit status last week.

“The argument that only a hotel or motel can safely house and monitor guests during quarantine is a red herring,” he said.

The Caldwell administration had no immediate response to the alliance’s request.

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