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COVID-19 Puts Short-Term Rentals Back Under Microscope

Short-term vacation rentals are getting a lot more attention under COVID-19. Procedures put in place under the pandemic could have a lasting impact on the industry as Hawai'i reopens its economy.

Short-term vacation rentals are back under the microscope as public concern rises over enforcement issues amid COVID-19.  The pandemic has brought changes to the industry that may have a lasting impact.

Hawai?i County was in the middle of rolling out tighter regulations on the short-term rental industry when COVID-19 hit. Michael Yee, planning director for Hawai?i County, says his inbox was soon flooded with emails from people concerned about potential illegal short-term rentals.

“I think the community was alarmed to see what they viewed as potential noncompliance from the industry,” says Yee. “It was amazing the number of people who would comb the online platforms for people who were advertising for a vacation rental.”

The coronavirus threat shut down the industry for months while procedures were put in place to ensure incoming travelers were not staying at short-term vacation rentals. Yee says the airport arrival process that requires travelers to provide their lodging addresses made it easier to flag illegal rentals.

“Because right now people can run ads on online platforms who don’t have addresses. The pictures may not be even specifically to that property. So it’s hard to know is that vacation rental legal or not,” says Yee. “That came out of this period where people have had to be a bit more transparent about where they?re staying.”

Yee says this may be a welcome move now, but some may think it's too invasive to ask for this level of transparency after COVID-19. Still, lawmakers are trying. 

House Bill 460 would not only require travelers to give complete addresses for their destination, it would also increase counties’ authority over online hosting platforms. That’s something counties lacked before COVID-19.

“As we come out of this pandemic, the revival of the visitor industry is going to be very, very important to putting people back to work, restoring people's livelihoods. And this bill just goes in exactly the opposite direction,” says Matt Middlebrook, Airbnb?s head of policy for the state of Hawai?i. 

“It is just counterproductive to helping to restore the local economy in Hawaii,” says Middlebrook. “And it's imposing new and onerous regulations in places where new laws have barely even had an opportunity to take effect.”

As for Yee, he says right now the discussion surrounding reopening is top of mind, especially with out-of-state travel resuming August 1. 

“Will our county try to be more restrictive? I don?t know. I have no idea,” says Yee. “But that leaves the question over what does the next phase of vacation rental really look like? Are we testing? No testing? Quarantine? No quarantine? It’s a question that still looms out there.”

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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