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Duluth considers crackdown on Airbnb rentals

Ahead of Grandma's Marathon, Duluth passes a moratorium on new full-time vacation rental homes.

Ahead of Grandma's Marathon, Duluth passes a moratorium on new full-time vacation rental homes.

Loranda McLeete is on “house arrest.” Granted, it's a self-imposed confinement, as her only crime is having a house in need of tidying. But that could change depending on how Duluth handles a budding controversy over vacation rental homes.

This week the city council approved a moratorium on new full-time vacation rental houses – the type found on websites such as Airbnb and VRBO. While Duluth preps for one of its busiest weekends of the year with Grandma's Marathon on Saturday, the city is hitting the pause button while it determines how to handle concerns from neighbors and ways to regulate the semi-off the rentals, which may or not have permits.

For now McLeete, who says she was one of Duluth's first Airbnb users, is unaffected. The flower child started opening her home to travelers more than a year ago, after she and her husband moved to the city. The couple had stayed at a few Airbnbs, which she likens to an upgraded couch-surfing service, and decided to try hosting.

“We've got chickens in the backyard, eat organic food – we're just kind of funky old hippies. We're not your fancy white carpeting, blah blah blah,” she says.

While the renters drawing the most ire are those putting vacationers in empty neighborhood homes, McLeete and her husband Paul only take guests when they're there. Insisting that her home be filled with “good vibes and good people,” Loranda is selective about who she takes in, vetting them via Facebook stalking and swapping a few messages. Backpackers, bicyclists and musicians passing through will crash for a night, while students have stayed for weeks during internships.

Although Duluth has 4,600 hotel rooms and draws 3.5 million visitors a year, McLeete says prices and minimum two-night stays deter the “hip poor” travelers she caters to.

If you're not a high-maintenance tool, you can crash at Paul and Loranda McLeete's place through Airbnbs.

If you're not a high-maintenance tool, you can crash at Paul and Loranda McLeete's place through Airbnbs.

“Because of the way Duluth's gotten, it's cutting out the type of people that we get in our house,” she says. “We get a lot of people who come for one night on their way camping. They're young and they're not going to spend $200 to sleep for a night. But then they stop here and they'll drop $200 going out barhopping, eating dinner and running around.”

Meanwhile, tourism industry vets are calling for tighter restrictions on the proliferating vacation rental. Tim Allen, president of Historic Bed and Breakfast Inns of Duluth, doesn't want to ban the sort-of businesses. But he would like to see them held to the same standards as traditional hotels and B&Bs.

"What we do want are some common sense rules and everybody to play by the same set of rules and get these places licensed, get them inspected, and make them start collecting the lodging and sales tax," Allen tells Northland's News Center.

Airbnb user Daniel Matthes has no problem paying taxes or licensing fees. But if the Duluth house he rents out each weekend was regulated like a hotel, he would probably sell. Since buying a lake home in Crosslake, Matthes only spends two nights a week in Duluth and takes comfort in having short-term renters around when he's not.

“It makes me feel better, because I know someone's taking care of my house,” he says.

While the McLeetes have enjoyed meeting visitors from across the world, they don't plan to play host forever. But Airbnb has been a helpful, if modest, income source for the couple as they hit a rough patch. In 2012, Paul McLeete was diagnosed with West Nile virus and could no longer work. He collects disability checks, but those and Loranda's special education paraprofessional wages only go so far.

Plus, having people around has helped her husband's spirits, Loranda says.

“I'm hoping to get our feet on the ground and have the space back. This is all new, falling into disability and having things happen to us that were kind of harsh,” she says. “To me it's more the stopgap. This is just helping me get through some bad times.”

Send news tips to Michael Rietmulder.