Airbnb’s place isn’t everywhere
The Times-Tribune | Editorial Board
August 10, 2016

There is nothing about using digital technology to rent rooms in a house that puts the practice beyond the reach of state and local zoning laws. Rather, the enterprise is exactly what it looks like — introduction of a business into a residential neighborhood not zoned for it.

Scranton’s zoning board is scheduled to hear an appeal today at 6 p.m. of the city’s May 18 order to George and Judith Reihner to stop renting rooms at their Electric Street home through Airbnb, a global website and app that matches hosts with renters.

Mrs. Reihner told Jim Lockwood of The Times-Tribune that she believes the city zoning ordinance does not address “sharing economy” activities such as that fostered by Airbnb. But it does address zoned business activity, and if Mrs. Reihner accepts payment from transient people for use of her rooms, she pretty clearly is conducting a business.

The better-known aspect of the “sharing economy” is ride-sharing, through web- and app-based services such as Uber and Lyft. Those enterprises have resisted government regulation throughout the United States, but just about everywhere regulators have prevailed — including in Pennsylvania. Uber and Lyft regularly have agreed to government-mandated safety standards and now are pressed at the federal and state levels on labor standards for drivers.

Regarding lodging, zoning is the equivalent public interest. State law precludes exclusion of any legal business activity in any zoning ordinance, but it allows municipal governments to define where those uses are allowed.

And zoning is not just a law but a process. It entails detailed public notices and hearings regarding any proposed activity, so that affected residents have the opportunity to state their concerns and zoning boards can weigh competing interests and legal requirements.

Airbnb undoubtedly has a place in Scranton. It probably even could play a role in helping the redevelopment of some areas by providing a source of revenue to fund improvements. But that place can’t be everywhere.

In Scranton, it’s particularly important to protect the integrity of exclusively residential neighborhoods, which already are buffeted by the city government’s and Scranton School District’s costly financial problems.

The issue goes beyond the Electric Street case. Regardless of what the zoning board decides, the Courtright administration and city council specifically should protect city neighborhoods from the introduction of unannounced businesses.