Airbnbs stir civic issues

by Tom Beck
Posted 12/6/23

Changes to how the city regulates some Airbnbs have left many in Chestnut Hill wondering whether to welcome the short-term rental service.

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Airbnbs stir civic issues


Changes to how the city regulates some Airbnbs have left many in Chestnut Hill wondering just how the short-term rental service should be welcomed into the fabric of the community, if at all. 

“Everyone wants to use Airbnbs, but no one wants them next door,” said Beth Wright, a Chestnut Hill resident who lives near an Airbnb in Chestnut Hill. “We like them because we want to stay in them ourselves, but we don’t want them in our neighborhoods because it results in not knowing who our neighbors are.”

On Jan. 1, the City of Philadelphia started enforcing a bill passed by City Council in 2021 that requires property owners in most residential zoning districts to get a variance for their short-term rental units if they don’t live onsite. Airbnbs where the property owner does live onsite are not subject to the law. The city defines short-term rental units as those able to be rented for less than 30 days at a time. 

Last week, the CHCA board considered its second variance request by someone seeking to operate an Airbnb in Chestnut Hill since the city’s new regulations went into effect. The board voted against recommending an Airbnb variance for the property at 7918 Ardleigh Street, which is in the middle of a residential area. 

The final say on that variance belongs to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments, which is scheduled to hear the case on Dec. 13. 

Dawn Tancredi, attorney for 7918 Ardleigh St. property owners Mark and Veronica Ferrante, declined to comment for this article.

It’s an issue that is difficult to quantify, as available listings on the popular site change weekly. As of press time on Tuesday, there were eight Airbnb rentals available in Chestnut Hill, eight in Mt. Airy and another eight in Germantown. The Local also could not determine how many of those properties are owner-occupied, or whether they are licensed as rental units by the city. 

Some neighbors in Chestnut Hill are concerned that the potential proliferation of Airbnbs, at least in the neighborhood’s more residential areas, could alter the fabric of what has historically been a community in which people get to know their neighbors. 

“Neighbors have lent us kayaks, let us store our bikes in their garage and helped us hang shelves,” wrote 7918 Ardleigh St. neighbor Jennifer Yusin in a letter to the CHCA board. “We’ve watched their kids, hosted them for happy hours, and cooked them food. We are all invested in our community and that is clearly not the case with visitors who are here for just a minimum of two nights.”

Others, like Wright, don’t love the idea of Airbnbs in their neighborhood but are willing to live with them if they’re properly regulated. 

“I don’t like the idea of having an unsupervised Airbnb next to me,” she said. “But I think there’s a space for [Airbnbs] in the overall offerings of lodging, although I think people would prefer that apartments be kept long-term [rentals].”

CHCA executive director Anne McNiff said the board ruled the way it did because it needs time to develop specific guidelines for what Airbnb variances get recommended, not because it disagreed with the concept of Airbnb in Chestnut Hill. 

“The board agreed that further discussion needs to take place to determine if there should be published guidelines outlining under what circumstances the Chestnut Hill [civic associations] would consider recommending support of a short-term visitor accommodation variance request,” said McNiff. “Several RCOs throughout the city have put these in place in response to the significant increase in variances being sought to allow short-term, non-owner occupied housing in mostly or completely residentially zoned neighborhoods.”

According to CHCA Development Review Facilitator Celeste Hardester, The Society Hill Civic Association in Center City has thus far developed the most comprehensive guidelines of any civic in the city – which she said the CHCA will consider emulating. 

That group only approves Airbnb variances for properties that, for some reason, cannot be rented as traditional apartments or single-family homes, are not facing opposition from immediate neighbors, and “have no record of undesirable activities,” Hardester said. Non-owner-occupied Airbnbs must reapply for a short-term rental license every two years and their visitors are required to stay for a two-night minimum. 

“That’s the most organized response I’ve seen from any [civic],” Hardester said. 

The only other variance request for a non-owner occupied Airbnb that the Chestnut Hill group has considered was presented over the summer, for a property at 8129 Germantown Ave. The CHCA board recommended supporting that variance because it was located in the neighborhood’s business corridor.

“It seemed appropriate for Germantown Avenue,” said Hardester.

However, for reasons unknown to the CHCA, the ownership at 8129 Germantown pulled out of its scheduled ZBA hearing. 

John Landis, a Chestnut Hill resident and professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Local that the city’s need for Airbnb regulations is part of an international trend.

“Before COVID we started seeing people converting houses to Airbnbs,” he said. “[Property owners] had seen that tourists were willing to pay large amounts on a nightly basis to find a nice accommodation.”

Because the city’s Airbnb regulations are so new, Landis said, there’s no consensus as to what makes a particular variance for a non-owner occupied short-term rental more or less likely to be passed by the ZBA.

“It’s simply very early,” he said.