The Airbnb Challenge

As Airbnb and other short-term rental services expand to include a range of property types, regulatory challenges create uncertainty over the level of safety those spaces should provide

BY ANGELO VERZONI

Four years ago, Medina Eve wrote about a frightening Airbnb stay. In an article for the online publishing platform Medium, she detailed how she and her partner had used the online marketplace, where homeowners rent their properties to guests seeking an alternative to a hotel or other accommodations, to book a cabin in the remote woods of Ontario, Canada. After trudging through snow, they followed the host’s instructions to retrieve the key and let themselves into the cabin, which she described as “a treehouse, only firmly planted on the ground.”

Right away, Eve felt nervous about the property. The cabin had a wood-burning stove on the first floor, and its chimney snaked through the ceiling into the second-floor bedroom, passing within a foot of the bed before disappearing into the roof. Eve and her partner took note of a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall. She texted a friend, jokingly, that she would die there, and included a string of fire emojis.

That night, the couple woke to find their bed smoking and, seconds later, on fire. “Our blankets act like kindling, flames licking upwards,” Eve wrote, adding that it became difficult to breathe and see. Her partner rushed to grab the fire extinguisher, attacking the fire with what little remained inside the tank. “There are two, just two, brief spurts left in it,” she said. “But it’s enough to get us the hell out of there.”

According to airbnb.com, on any given night, 2 million people stay in properties rented by the service in some 65,000 cities around the globe. There are more than 4 million active Airbnb listings in 191 countries. “What makes all of that possible?” the website reads. “Trust.”

That’s not very reassuring in light of a new study, published in May in the journal Injury Prevention, that found a lack of fire and life safety features in Airbnb properties in 16 United States cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco. Researchers analyzed about 121,000 of the roughly 600,000 Airbnb listings in the U.S., finding that 20 percent of the property owners did not report having smoke alarms, 42.5 percent didn’t report having carbon monoxide (CO) alarms, 58 percent didn’t report having fire extinguishers, and 64 percent didn’t report having first aid kits. “This is really surprising because most fire deaths and carbon monoxide poisonings happen in residential housing,” study co-author Vanya Jones of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Reuters.

The study comes at a time when cities nationwide are moving to more tightly regulate Airbnb and other short-term rental properties. But as some communities have learned, regulation of such a new and unique building use is easier said than done.

“All of a sudden, we’re sending building officials out and they’re seeing things they’ve never seen before,” said Keith Burlingame, director of the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review. “Classification of these properties is the biggest challenge that we are facing at the outset.”

 

Classifying something new

What are these properties? That’s the question building and fire code officials have struggled to answer since short-term rental companies like Airbnb began launching several years ago. Are they hotels? Are they residential properties? Or are they something else altogether?

Not much insight can be gained from digging into widely used building codes. The International Building Code (IBC), for example, applies to what it calls “transient” residential occupancies, or places where occupants stay no longer than 30 days. That broad definition seems to fit the bill for Airbnb rentals and similar properties. But it also lists hotels and boarding houses as examples, and an argument could be made that most Airbnb properties aren’t similar enough to a hotel to be regulated as such.

That’s the logic Burlingame subscribes to. He told me in May that building code officials in the small coastal city of Newport, Rhode Island, have been classifying short-term rental properties under the IBC, instead of classifying them under the International Residential Code that applies to one- and two-family homes. That means, like hotels, they’re required to have fire sprinklers and meet other life safety requirements for accessibility and egress. In reality, though, that’s not happening. A search of Airbnbs in Newport using the company’s website showed over 300 available properties, some of which didn’t even report having smoke alarms. (There is no option for reporting sprinklers.)

There are too many of these properties scattered throughout the tourist-dense town, some in houses that are well over 100 years old, to enforce the IBC classification, Burlingame said, which is why he and other members of the fire code board don’t support it. “We’ve always taken the position that if you rent a single-family house to anyone for any period of time it’s still a single-family house,” he said. “There is a fire safety concern out there by some people, but you have to look at the global picture. How different is renting an Airbnb to someone for under 30 days from renting that same structure to someone seasonally for six months?”


Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Like the International Code Council codes, NFPA codes, including NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, leave it up to the jurisdiction to decide whether they want to classify short-term rental properties like hotels, residential properties, or something else. “It’s not currently a distinct type of occupancy in the codes, nor do I see it becoming a type of occupancy,” said Robert Solomon of NFPA’s Building Fire Protection and Systems division. He compared the situation to when condominiums became more popular in the 1970s. Some viewed that as a type of occupancy when in reality it is just a form of legal ownership of a particular type of building space, Solomon said.

Further complicating the issue of classifying short-term rental properties using codes is the breadth of scenarios that present themselves through the Airbnb business model. There are hosts who rent out one or two bedrooms in a single-family home, or rent an entire single-family home. Others rent an apartment or condo in a larger building. Most recently, entire apartment or condo buildings have been devoted to short-term rentals to multiple renters.

It’s the last scenario that concerns building and fire code officials the most. “If you have a 15-unit apartment building and you rent out all 15 units short-term, you’ve just created a hotel and skipped all the regulations that go along with hotels,” said Adam Miceli, assistant fire chief in Rockland, Maine, a small seaside town where Airbnb hosts have been competing for guests with inn and bed-and-breakfast owners for about four years. “The only difference is with the apartment building you’re going to have a kitchen in every unit, so for us that’s more dangerous, not less dangerous, than a hotel.”

Aware of the potential danger, the city passed an ordinance in 2016 in part prohibiting the short-term rental of more than one unit in an apartment building. Other cities—including San Francisco, the birthplace and current headquarters of Airbnb—have recently imposed similar restrictions, citing a more ethical concern: landlords illegally evicting tenants so they can rent out all of their units on sites like Airbnb to turn a higher profit.

The Rockland ordinance also requires all short-term rental properties to meet minimum city requirements for one- and two-family homes, such as having smoke alarms, but the city doesn’t inspect all of these properties. Like Burlingame, Miceli said he understands the limitations of the fire service to start imposing strict, non-traditional requirements on properties such as old one-family homes, especially in a city like Rockland that has minimal inspection resources. “With or without Airbnb, there’s still the sense that homeowners are the king of the castle” and won’t let someone come in and tell them what to do, Miceli said.

 

Educating the guest and the host

Since jurisdictions haven’t come up with clear answers for the emergence of short-term rentals, NFPA and others stress the importance of education for both consumers and hosts who choose to rent and rent out units on sites like Airbnb. “Consumers need to be more than mindful of the safety features,” said Lisa Braxton, a public education specialist at NFPA. “They need to know what safety features are in place before committing to an Airbnb.”

On the service’s website, prospective renters can filter available properties by amenities including smoke and CO alarms—which the site refers to as “detectors,” a term commonly and inaccurately used to describe residential alarms. While users can’t filter by fire extinguishers or first-aid kits, they can check properties individually to see if they list them as amenities before booking. There’s no way to see if a property has fire sprinklers, but users can send a message to the host asking any question they wish about fire and life safety before booking.

Miceli agrees that public education is key to keeping people safe in the new world of short-term rentals. “Someone who’s short-term renting may never become familiar with the peculiarities of a house,” he said. “So we really need to be regulating common sense.”

 

GUEST, PROTECT THYSELF

In the absence of uniform standards and practices, safety officials urge users of services like Airbnb to act as their own safety advocates when selecting and occupying accommodations. Photograph: Jens Kalaene/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

The experience has been similar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. About a year ago, the city, located across the Charles River from Boston, passed an ordinance regulating short-term rental properties. But Chris Towski, one of the fire prevention staff members at the Cambridge Fire Department, said that doesn’t mean the properties are all being inspected. The onus falls on the Airbnb hosts to be compliant with the same building codes they would have to be if their property wasn’t being used as a short-term rental, as well as some additional measures like providing fire escape route maps in the same way hotels need to. Towski doesn’t suspect—or even expect—every owner to be doing that, though.

For the city’s fire department, Towski said the concern revolves less around the built environment and more around occupant load and behavior, especially as firefighters respond to incidents like residential structure fires. “As a firefighter, you see a classic three-decker building and you’re thinking, OK, you have three families in there—but now you have others taking up those spaces, so it could be a higher volume of occupancy,” Towski said. Overcrowding in short-term rentals is a concern many cities have expressed since businesses like Airbnb began emerging. Like Miceli, Towski also said there’s a concern over guests not taking the time as they enter a short-term rental property to note the exits and safety features. And unlike an event like a house party, which may have a similar higher-than-usual occupant load, there’s potentially nobody in the property who “knows the lay of the land” and can help direct occupants to safety, he said.

When it comes to educating Airbnb hosts about the importance of being compliant with necessary building codes and providing fire and life safety features, Miceli said he’s faced a lot of pushback but in some cases has been able to persuade hosts by bringing up the potential legal implications of renting out an unsafe space. “Once you start talking about risk, the lightbulb comes on,” he said. “The more we talk about it, the more we can move the dial a bit in some people, the more risk-averse people, but there are still people who say it’s their home, it’s their right” to do as they please with their property.

Some Airbnb hosts don’t need that nudge. In May I sent messages using Airbnb’s website to several hosts who reported having smoke and CO alarms, fire extinguishers, and first-aid kits. While no one took me up on a request to visit their property, a couple sent messages back explaining why they chose to include these features. One host in the Cambridge area said he chose to include the features because it was the responsible thing to do. “I totally believe [in] safety first,” said another in Newport. “I am in the medical field, and anyone can get hurt.”

Airbnb itself has taken actions to make its properties safer by working with its hosts. “We routinely run safety workshops with hosts and leading local experts and provide hosts with online safety cards with important local information for their guests,” Airbnb’s website says. “Hosts can also request a free smoke and carbon monoxide [alarm] for their home.”

Still, after her fire scare in Canada, Eve has decided to take safety matters into her own hands when staying in Airbnbs—and hers is good advice for any consumer.

“When it comes to your safety, don’t assume anything is taken care of,” she wrote in the Medium article. “Pack the nerdiest first aid kit you can find, make a mental note of where to find safety items (e.g. fire extinguisher), check the batteries on the smoke [alarms], etc. Don’t be shy about having the necessary conversations with your host about safety features. Do this especially … when the place is off-[the-]grid and quirky, which is a big selling point for Airbnb properties but potentially risky for you. Airbnb experiences are generally excellent, and in many cases rival the hotel experience ten times over, but they definitely don’t have the same safety regulations. Or any.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photographs: Thinkstock, IStockphoto

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