In the last decade, we have seen the proliferation of the sharing culture: ride sharing, home sharing, scooter sharing, workspace sharing, meal delivery sharing, etc., Plainfield has either kept abreast of or has led in this sharing culture. Now Plainfield is poised yet again to participate in the debate relating to home sharing as it considers revisions to its ordinance in 2019 to address short-term rentals (STRs) in the city. It is a pivotal moment for the Queen City’s future, now poised at the crossroads of a decision that will help determine if the historic town will join the ranks of other sought-out, convenient locales that are destinations/future residences for streaming visitors seeking to be within proximity to NYC and similar attractions.

The question is: Does Plainfield want to be part of this growing number of rental options and showcase all that we love about our city?

What is a Short-Term Rental (STR)?

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New Jersey state legislation TB-81R, defines STRs as “transient accommodations.” “Transient accommodation” means a room, group of rooms, or other living or sleeping space for the lodging of occupants, including but not limited to residences or buildings used as residences. This definition includes rentals made through “transient space marketplaces,” as well as rentals that are made directly by the homeowner through classified listing sites, local newspaper ads, referrals from friends/family, or sign placement on the home, etc. A short-term rental is rented for periods of less than 31 consecutive days. Any rental 30 days or more requires a lease by law. The more popular short-term rental hosting sites include Airbnb and HomeAway.

There are at least 30 identified STRs in Plainfield that are hosted by homeowners who are your neighbors, friends, and customers. They chose to rent, not as a get-rich-quick scheme, but instead, out of personal necessity. No homeowner who plunked down their life savings to buy in this great town and create a sacred space for their families or themselves, filled with their dreams, carefully chosen furnishings and costly improvements, had ever conceived that they would be sharing their homes with complete strangers (who have become friends or return guests). The reasons for opting for STRs are not frivolous: some residents experienced layoffs off and were desperate about saving their homes; others struggled with the ever-increasing property taxes and used STRs as a means of staying afloat; STRs afforded some the ability to purchase derelict properties to rehabilitate them, thereby strengthening and improving our neighborhoods; one family moved out of Plainfield but still had to pay their mortgage via STR when their home didn’t sell; ensuring that homes are occupied in owner’s absence; and for me – it was borne out of the need to offset the prohibitive expense of caring for an aging parent. Whatever the reason, it is deeply personal for many of us and necessary for our and the city’s well being.

Why Does All of This Matter?

I received a violation letter last September from the City of Plainfield for hosting a short-term rental, initiated by a cited complaint. The letter referenced Plainfield’s Land Use Zoning Ordinance, which has been the holy grail for governing property use, citing Sections 17:8-1, pg. 51 and 17:9-3, as detailed in http://www.plainfieldnj.gov/docs/Land%20Use%20Ordinance.pdf. Neither section directly referenced short-term rentals. The complaint set in motion inspections by the city to determine continued violations. However, the city’s pursuit of further legal actions was dropped following the combination of my own legal defense and the city’s ambiguous position on STRS. It is important for Plainfielders to be aware of how easy it is for legal proceedings to be set in motion by the City if there is any perception or evidence that an ordinance was violated, based on a single complaint and importantly, how the ordinances can infringe on your property rights.

At a meeting held last November, a group of approximately 40 residents met to discuss this issue and what needed to be done to protect hosts and neighbors alike in the pursuit of STRs in Plainfield. The group comprised STR (Airbnb) owners and also a significant cross-section of non-STR residents who either supported short-term rentals or were interested in learning more about STRs. Many residents indicated that they wanted to see STRs supported with a degree of regulation to ensure compliance, but not too strict to deter visitors. I, for one, would also like to see the new ordinance place the responsibility of monitoring squarely on the city and not on the shoulders of neighbors to report on each other. Westfield’s revised ordinance on STRs did just that by giving the police and zoning officials the tools they needed to ensure compliance. Otherwise, the existing ordinances only foster division and vigilantism and not a sense of community and neighborliness – values that attracted me to and kept me in Plainfield. The best part of Plainfield is our residents and neighbors that we share our lives with – the very fabric of our community, so maintaining these relationships is key to its survival.

STR Perceptions vs Reality

The points of opposition to STRs appear to be based on misperception, often rooted in fear. There is a litany of perceptions surrounding STRs, but here are some of the more popular ones, along with the corresponding reality:

Perception

Reality

It puts the neighborhood at risk

 

 

There is little evidence linking STRs with an increase in crime. As Airbnb has flourished over the last 11 yrs, there has been a downward trend in crime rates statewide. Specifically, in Plainfield, aside from murders (alleged to be targeted) from 2009 to 2016, there was a decrease in non-violent crimes from 28.3 to 21% and violent crimes from 10.3% to 9.6% (MyCentralJersey.com, 1/17/17) primarily due to aggressive actions by the police department.

 

98% of the STRs in Plainfield are owner-occupied. So, homeowners are directly involved with and privy to the activities of their visitors. The remaining 2% that are not owner-occupied, are monitored by agents or property managers who engage and monitor the activities of the guests. Additionally, owners' homes are generally more at risk than the neighborhood. The onus is on the owners to safeguard their homes and to mitigate any impact on the neighbors/neighborhood.

Guests are vetted by Airbnb/other STR platforms, homeowners’ criteria for accepting guests as well as high rental fees. They are also held accountable by House Rules and reviews and stand the chance of not being able to rent another room/home again if they receive unfavorable reviews.

It would create parking issues for neighbors

House Rules require parking only in the driveway of the host owner or in the street but never in the driveway of other neighbors. In general, there is a 2-car limit for guests.  Issues can easily be rectified with the proper regulation.

There will be lavish parties thrown by guests

All the owners I have spoken with prohibit parties in their homes and this is built into the House Rules accompanied by heavy fines for violations. After all, these are our homes, and no one wants them damaged/destroyed.

More noise and trash

This is regulated through House Rules and if there were reports that the guests break these rules, they would be fined by owners and given poor reviews and reports to Airbnb, etc.,

The key to any responsible regulation is not to penalize the majority if a minority goes rogue. Specifically address with the renegades. Westfield’s Mayor Shelley Brindle recognized this and the need to pass responsible laws when she noted that their ordinance “is not intended to ban short-term rentals as many Westfield residents are supplementing their income without any disruption to the neighbors.”

On a separate note, a dear friend expressed concern that once STRs are permitted to thrive, more people would start renting out their entire homes and there would no longer be a sense of community if STRs are not regulated. That fear is real for her and perhaps others. However, the reality is that not many homeowners are willing to or can easily vacate their entire home to rent to guests for any indeterminable period of time, unless they are investors or have alternative places to live. The sacrifice of displacement is so much greater. I haven’t met anyone who fits in either category in Plainfield. While more people may become hosts of STRs, it is unlikely that it will result in an equal amount wanting to rent their entire homes.

New Jersey State’s Position on STRs

In July of last year, Governor Phil Murphy, signed a bill into law that imposes an occupancy and sales tax on STRs. Effective October 1, 2018, STRs are subjected to the state's 6.6%sales tax and 5% hotel occupancy fee. The new law exempts rentals through real estate agents and allows municipalities that pass the appropriate ordinance to collect taxes up to 3%. According to a recent blog by Councilman Cory Storch, Newark and Asbury Park are a few of the towns that have begun to benefit from these tax revenues. Jersey City has imposed a 1% occupancy tax on its STRs. Many towns also regulate the rental through third-party vetting platforms such as Airbnb and VRBOs (Vacation Rentals by Owners) such as HomeAway, city regulations, and inspections. So, it is timely that Plainfield now has to directly and explicitly confront its position on STRs, and in light of the recent state law, determine if/how it will tax and if/how it will regulate STRs, since the state law takes precedence over the municipalities.

Plainfield as a Vacation Rental Destination

A growing number of tourists have turned to STRs as their vacation accommodation of choice. This is primarily due to the fact that, compared to hotels, they are less expensive, especially for large families, and they connect visitors to the neighborhoods they are vacationing in. As a result, according to the Goldwater Institute, STR guests stay longer in a city (5 vs. 2.8 days) than hotel visitors. Over 74%  of Airbnb properties are outside of the main hotel districts. That puts Plainfield in a prime position, as the city has no hospitality industry, such as neighboring South Plainfield and Westfield, or even the great metropolis of New York City. Yet those opposed to STRs are interested in having Plainfield impose ordinance restrictions akin to those in these host cities where Airbnb competes with the hotel industry. The city is in need of accommodations where visiting families and guests can stay without having to trek to Westfield or other neighboring towns with hotels.

Plainfield’s STR owners reside primarily in low- and medium-density zones in Plainfield (R-2 to R6). We represent a cross-section of the socioeconomic spectrum of the town, and have brought in visitors to Plainfield who might not have otherwise known about or chosen the Queen City when planning their vacations. The visitors renting homes in our area range from travelers seeking to be near a vacation destination, families visiting their kids in college, executives in town for meetings, friends or families in town for an event, or even some New Yorkers who just want to escape the rigor of the city. From reviews, visitors have gushed about our beautiful, spacious, historic homes and quiet neighborhoods, as well as the accompanying and surrounding amenities. Vacationers have traveled from Scotland, Australia, Southeast Asia, and virtually every country in Europe, as well as many states within the U.S. According to a recent study by the Division of Travel and Tourism, tourism is New Jersey’s top industry, generating revenue of $5 billion in state and local revenue. What a rich, cultural connection each visitor would bring to our neighborhoods! Wouldn’t it be cool if Plainfield partnered with Airbnb on a tourism campaign to make the city an STR destination?

Community Benefits of STRs

Many Plainfield hosts average about 20-30 guests, annually. If every host attained their maximum number of guests per year, Plainfield would enjoy a combined total of nearly 1,000 visitors each year to the Queen City and subsequently to the commercial businesses around town. If every visitor spent at least $100 in the city, one can imagine just how much of a boost these visits have brought to our local economy. Just imagine if Queen City attracted even more visitors! According to the Goldwater Institute[1], 50% of guests’ spending is in neighborhoods where they stay and they spend 2.1 times more in the local areas than typical visitors. Each year has brought increases in guest stays and revenue to STR hosts. According to Airbnb, at the beginning of 2018, New Jersey had about 8,100 listings, with each host averaging $7,300 a year for renting out a spare room. Jersey City has the most Airbnb listings per city out of all NJ cities, with 2,769 listings as of October 26, 2018.[2]  Hosts made as much as $2,584 in Montclair in a month. By the end of the year, some towns saw their highest guest arrivals and monetary returns during the holidays. The 2018 New Year’s Eve weekend alone (December 29-January 1) brought a combined total of over 7,300 visitors to Jersey City, Union City, Hoboken, and North Bergen, generating over $801,000 in rental revenues (up from $531,000 in 2017).

In addition to generating rental revenue, there are other benefits to STRs, quite like those Jersey City has been experiencing  a massive amount of development, community and property improvements, and appreciation in recent years.[3]  There has been development in Jersey City structured specially with STRs in mind. For example, The URBY is a new building that not only allows STRs, but also offers an additional management service to condo owners who chose to rent out their units.[4]

As Plainfield straddles the fine line between the ordinary (status quo) and the extraordinary (optimizing STRs), it has to carefully toe the line between these two options (while protecting homeowners) as its efforts to realize change could either deter many visitors if it takes a more restrictive stance on STRs or it could attract more, to make the Queen City a viable vacation rental destination. 

To aid in the decision, please write your council member and encourage him/her to consider an ordinance that will:

  • allow homeowners to be good neighbors without infringements on our property rights
  • be monitored by the city and promote community and neighborly support
  • require that all STRs be vetted by a third-party platform such as Airbnb
  • require STRs to be registered with the city
  • require a property manager or agent for absentee homeowners

Thank you for taking the time to read this article in its entirety and for your support! Here’s to On Plainfield.

Nadine Roper is a marketing executive at a design consulting firm headquartered in New York City and has been a Plainfield resident for over 10 years.

Contributors: Eric Welsh, Ralph Murray and Brian Munroe.