Sabrina Thompson

The Observer

Kristie Albrecht began renting out her unused basement rooms through Airbnb to bring in additional income. What began as a small entrepreneurial endeavor in September 2018 has now become a major source of income for her. It has also expanded her familiarity with La Grande’s city codes.

After she opened the vacation rental space, she became aware she was not in compliance with La Grande’s codes regarding parking requirements. Hoping to rectify the situation, Albrecht applied for a conditional use permit from the planning commission.

She was denied the permit and upon rejection appealed to the city council at its July 10 meeting. Ultimately, Albrecht was denied her appeal and the council upheld the planning commission’s decision in a 4-2 vote.

Airbnb, which has become an alternative to hotels and motels, is a system in which guests stay in a host’s home, renting either the entire house or a single room depending on the host’s preference and availability. The City of La Grande treats an Airbnb like a bed and breakfast when regulating the business’ requirements for the property. Hosts are required to pay a transient tax, provide adequate parking space and obtain the proper land use permits to use their residence as a rental.

Albrecht’s decision to continue to live in her home while renting out the basement increases the parking requirement for the property, according to the city’s planning commission. For Albrecht’s property she must have three accessible off-street parking spaces. Her driveway on the side of the house has three spaces, but they are stacked, meaning once a car pulls in, it blocks in the previous car. Albrecht also has one spot in front of her house to park on the public street. Additional requirements by the city code take neighbor compatibility into consideration. During the public hearing at the city council meeting, neighbors spoke both in favor and against Albrecht’s business.

During Albrecht’s appeal to the city council, supporters spoke positively on her character and the impact Airbnbs can have on the city’s economy.

“How do we organize our rules and laws to allow for creativity in economic development?” Union Airbnb host Tony Malmberg said.

Many of Albrecht’s neighbors stated they had no idea she was renting out the rooms until they were notified by the city about the initial hearing in May. Many of these statements were reiterated at the July meeting in the hopes of appealing to the council to allow a waiver to the parking requirement.

However, not everyone was in favor. Albrecht’s neighbor John Lackey spoke in opposition to the waiver, citing issues with a lack of parking and safety on the street.

“The condition of the street width hasn’t changed, but the use and the speed has increased,” Lackey said.

Community Development Director Michael Boquist attended the meeting to defend the planning commission’s decision and answer questions in regard to the code under consideration and its language.

The councilors’ questions on the issue were primarily about the vague language and inconsistencies in the code and its enforcement. Acting as a quasi-judicial entity, the council’s decision is based on whether Albrecht’s use of her house complied with city codes as they are written presently. Because of this four of the councilors found the planning commission’s decision to deny her permit was justified. Councilors Nicole Howard and Corrine Dutto voted against the decision.

In response to the denial Albrecht plans to instead directly rent out her basement rooms to individual tenants as a landlord rather than as vacation rentals through Airbnb.

“I understand their finding if you go strictly by codes and lawbooks,” Albrecht said. “But, sometimes those don’t make the most sense. We have a lot of housing issues in this town and I provided a service with an Airbnb that was well respected and that people really enjoyed. I think they’re learning, the council, that some of their codes are archaic and they need to update some things and not just rubber stamp things through because someone said something in a book that could be interpreted 10 different ways.”

The code in question was City’s Land Development Code Ordinance 3242, Series 2018, Article 5.7. Boquist’s concern with waving this code requirement, and one City Manager Robert Strope echoed, was that doing so sets a risky precedent with parking.

“Allowing stacked parking could lead to parking in the driveway at Safeway,” Strope said.

Albrecht’s hope is that the council will consider updating the code after this meeting, something that many of the councilors and Strope agreed was needed.

Other decisions made by the city council at the meeting include approving updates to street and sidewalk repair projects, accepting an application for a community development block grant, exchanging funds from federal to state accounts and appointing Dusty Downing to one of the vacant positions on the City of La Grande
Arts Commission.