PROVIDENCE — The deadline for hosts to register their Airbnb, Vrbo and other short-term rentals in Rhode Island has passed, and nearly 3,000 properties have been registered with the state so far.
The 2,936 registered short-term rentals are mostly clustered where you’d expect: in Providence (252) and along the shore. Narragansett leads the way by a significant margin, with 641 short-term rentals registered. The community with the second highest number of properties registered was Middletown, with 323. Block Island had 258. Newport had 254.
A year ago, state lawmakers overrode a veto by Governor Dan McKee to pass legislation creating a statewide registry of short-term rentals. With short-term rentals, property owners can rent out a room or an entire home, generally for less than 30 days, through online platforms. They’ve become a popular option for vacationers and homeowners, and they’re proliferated not just in longtime tourism hotspots but in just about every corner of the state: They are in every Rhode Island town except Foster, Lincoln, and West Greenwich. Besides the towns with zero, Woonsocket and Scituate had the least, with two registered short-term rentals each.
They have to be registered at $50 a pop with the Department of Business Regulation, or else face fines of $250 for the first 30 days, $500 for 31 to 60 days, and $1,000 for more than 60 days. (It’s possible, in other words, that some short-term rentals aren’t registered.) The deadline to register was Sunday; the database, which includes property addresses and registration status, is also available on the state’s website, but we’ve included a searchable map below, too.
Airbnb isn’t the only rental platform in the state, but it’s probably the best known, and its name often invoked as a shorthand for short-term rentals. It also has strong Rhode Island ties: Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (which owns its own Airbnb in Barrington). According to the company, listings on Airbnb comprise 0.5 percent of total dwellings across Rhode Island.
State Senator Victoria Gu said in an interview that she heard a lot about short-term rentals while she was canvassing during her successful campaign to represent Westerly, Charlestown, and South Kingstown. Concerns included nuisance issues like noise; changes in neighborhoods as owner-occupied places became rentals where people came and went every week; and the lack of available housing for people to live full-time.
Gu said she’ll meet next week with the Department of Business Regulation to get a briefing on the registry — which she called an “important first step.” Other steps are possible; the General Assembly started session this week.
In the meantime, some Rhode Island towns have taken matters into their own hands, creating their own registries or mulling their own regulations. In Narragansett, members of the Town Council have considered imposing a series of restrictions, which prompted pushback from local landlords.
Supporters of Airbnbs and other short-term rentals said they’re a good way for people to make extra cash. About 35 percent of hosts said in an Airbnb survey that one of the reasons they host is so they can earn money to help cover rising living costs, and 40 percent said they host to earn money to help make ends meet. Meanwhile Airbnb points to its efforts to prevent disruptive parties — which, the San Francisco-based company says, are working.
Donna Parssinen, an Airbnb host in a rural part of Westerly, said Airbnb has allowed her to make some extra money, and even some new friends. She’s gone quahogging with some of her guests, and over Thanksgiving, roasted chestnuts over an outdoor fire pit with them. She rents out the house where she grew up and lives in another home on the property.
And yes, it’s registered.
“I think you can make regulations that are sensible and address the issues people may have without being overly restrictive,” Parssinen said in an interview set up by Airbnb’s PR office. “I can understand there are issues, depending on particular situations or particular hosts. And of course, that should be addressed in not too broad of a sweep. … If you have one bad apple in the barrel, are you going to throw out the whole barrel?”
Expedia Group, which includes Vrbo, said in an emailed statement that it was “committed to productive partnerships with community stakeholders to support and balance the needs of neighbors, travelers, and the short-term rental community.”
“Through our active engagement in Rhode Island, Expedia Group has found the Rhode Island Department of Business and Regulation to be both responsive and transparent when we have reached out with questions,” Philip Minardi, Expedia’s global head of public affairs, said in an email. “It is our understanding that the short-term rental registry is running smoothly and providing useful information to municipalities and individuals alike.”
But there are skeptics. That includes some sectors of the hospitality industry; some figures in that world consider short-term rentals little more than unregulated hotels that get more favorable tax treatment. According to the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, a trade group that includes hotels, hotel guests pay 13 percent to stay at a hotel, made up of a 7 percent sales tax, 5 percent state hotel tax, and 1 percent local hotel tax. But guests at short-term rentals of an entire apartment or home only pay the 7 percent sales tax and 1 percent local hotel tax; rentals of an entire home or apartment are excluded from the 5 percent state hotel tax.
“We think at a minimum, because they’re operating as hotels, they should be taxed the same way as hotels are taxed,” Sarah Bratko, then the hospitality association’s lobbyist, said in October.