Safety Last

The city has no system to ensure Airbnb rentals undergo inspections.

You can go on Airbnb right now and rent a basement room with wall murals in a house in Southeast Portland. Or you can rent one in Southwest that looks like a hotel suite. You can even check into an attic room in a Victorian for $40 a night, if you don't mind climbing a ladder to get to it.

These offerings are among more than 1,600 rentals in Portland available through Airbnb, the online broker that allows people to offer short-term rentals in their homes.

This summer, Airbnb got the city to put new rules in place that legitimize its ongoing operations and bring many rentals into compliance with city code.

But these basement and attic rentals may still not be legal. Photos of these and other rentals on Airbnb show tiny basement windows, windows with bars over them, narrow staircases, and attics that have only one way in and out—all potentially fire code violations. 

To find properties that could be illegal, all you have to do is click. A brief check of Airbnb's website by WW turned up more than 10 properties that might fail inspections.

There's no way to know for sure. Records obtained by WW show only 67 Airbnb hosts—or 4 percent of those operating in the city—have applied for a permit since the city's Bureau of Development Services began accepting applications Aug. 30. The permit requires a city safety inspection.

"This requirement ensures that basic safety measures are in place through an inspection by the Bureau of Development Services," said a city report accompanying the rules the City Council adopted.

Since then, city officials have made virtually no effort to enforce the rules, even though many rentals remain unsafe. 

Right now, the city's approach to enforcement: Wait until someone complains. If the city finds a host operating without a permit, that person has 30 days to buy a permit or cease operating.

Veteran neighborhood activists say the city's complaint-driven system of regulation is essentially no regulation at all. 

"The ones that give it some thought may figure out that the city is not up to the task of shutting everybody down," says Dean Gisvold, land-use committee chairman for the Irvington Community Association—the fifth-largest Airbnb listing area in Portland.

The City Council approved the new short-term rental rules July 30, brokering a deal between Airbnb and neighborhood groups that objected to homeowners turning their extra bedrooms into businesses.

Existing bed-and-breakfast establishments, which have long operated under city rules, were angry that Airbnb rentals didn't have to pay hotel taxes or undergo fire and safety inspections.

The city's resulting deal included the requirement for permits and allowed Airbnb to begin collecting hotel taxes through its website.

In the middle of the debate, Airbnb announced in March it would open a 160-employee call center in Old Town.

The city has been far more accommodating to Airbnb than to other sharing-economy operations, such as Uber, a ride-sharing app that allows users to offer their cars as taxis. 

The debate over the Airbnb rules got widespread publicity over the summer. Still, Dana Haynes, a spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales, says the city isn't worried about the low compliance numbers.

"It's a new regulation," Haynes says. "And frankly, most people don't pay close attention to the actions the city takes."

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz oversees the Bureau of Development Services. Her office didn't respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Michael Liefeld, enforcement program manager for the Bureau of Development Services, says he doesn't know why so few Airbnb hosts have obtained city permits. "Our enforcement process is to try to go out and educate people," Liefeld says.

He says he has asked Airbnb to require hosts to prove they have a city permit, but the company has not responded to his request. 

An Airbnb spokeswoman declined to say why the company continues to offer properties that have not been inspected.

Robert McCullough, president of Southeast Uplift, a consortium of 20 neighborhood associations, says the city should be less concerned about boosting the sharing economy and more concerned about protecting guests. 

"Would you stay at a hotel that has never been inspected by the fire inspector?" McCullough says. "Most people would say no."

Gisvold says he's frustrated with City Hall's lack of interest in making Airbnb hosts follow the law.

"They seem to be enforcement-averse," he says. "I don't think they have the political will to do it."