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PORTLAND, Maine — The short-term rental unit Rudy Ferrante hosts next to his home on Munjoy Hill is booked solid in a typical April. Not this year.
Even before the state ordered a shutdown on Airbnb and other short-term rentals through April due to the new coronavirus, Ferrante’s guests canceled on him well into June. With no short-term revenue coming in, he’s now leaning toward renting his Vesper Street unit for a year.
“That way I don’t have to worry about when this is going to end,” Ferrante said.
Some of the roughly 800 registered short-term rental units in Portland could go back on the market because of the pandemic. With no revenue coming in, owners like Ferrante are weighing switching units over to long-term rentals or riding things out until the virus passes.
Short-term rentals have caused headaches in Maine’s coastal vacation hotspots. Cities and towns from Portland to Bar Harbor have further regulated them in recent years in part because of housing crunches. Officials would like to see more units on the long-term market, especially as the virus has prompted record-setting unemployment filings.
In Portland, many property owners have registered units under a city program as both short-term and long-term rentals. Nobody has given up their short-term registrations yet, though “quite a few” are now choosing to use the long-term rental, said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin, though she said “there is no way to quantify” the number.
Things could remain steady at first. Thomas Moulton, a commercial broker and former Airbnb host in Portland, said most short-term rental owners he knows are prepared to hang on in hopes that things will be back to normal for the lucrative summer season.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a mass exodus out of that market unless this persists for three months or more,” said Moulton, a broker with the Portland-based real estate firm the Dunham Group.
During the first full week of April, Airbnb bookings were roughly half of what they were in the first full week of February, according to AirDNA. But the company is not going to let short-term rentals leave the market without a fight. It said this week that certain “superhosts” — a term for top-rated hosts — could get grants from a $1 billion fund to offset virus-related losses.
The Portland City Council postponed votes Tuesday on measures to reimburse 2020 short-term rental registration fees and waive long-term registration charges if landlords put apartments on the long-term market and grant $1,000 payments to short-term hosts who rent long-term to Section 8 or General Assistance recipients.
Tim Ingraham of Portland is a superhost who said he is likely to take Airbnb’s deal. The Deering Center apartment he and his wife have offered on Airbnb is “pretty much over 95 percent full” from May through November in typical years, making the family a good amount of money.
His Airbnb guests have cancelled into June, but the hope that things would return to normal by summer is enough to keep the unit open, Ingraham said.
“I’m sure the last thing Airbnb wants to do is see people go away from short-term rentals,” he said. ”That’s their bread and butter.”
Ian McConnell, a physician who lives in Boston, still has bookings from late May through November for his Airbnb apartment inside a three-unit building on Cumberland Avenue. He worries that if he canceled them and put his building back on the long-term market, it would be difficult to ever get back on the platform.
“We’re just taking it on the nose for now, and just accepting that we’re not going to have revenue for as long as this goes on,” he said.
Some property owners observe that the housing crunch presents an ethical incentive to switch short-term units back on the long-term market, but many say their situations are complicated.
Many homeowners rent out floors or single rooms in their own home, units that wouldn’t otherwise be available long-term. Others are in buildings that working Portland residents own as investments on thin margins that depend on high-season Airbnb revenue to pay mortgages.
That’s the situation for David Burke, a high school teacher who rents out units in two buildings through Airbnb, VRBO and ads he places in nursing magazines. Neither would be easily shifted to long-term rentals, he said. Burke estimated that spring cancellations from short-term guests have already cost his family between $10,000 and $20,000.
In a way, he’s glad they’re cancelling — he knows the shutdown is necessary to stop the outbreak. But for him and other short-term rental hosts, two scenarios are possible.
If the shutdown lasts through the summer, he may have to go into debt to pay the mortgages. On the other hand, Portland property owners could see a booming market after the virus recedes as tourists choose a trip to Maine over travel abroad.
“I have a feeling when they reopen the state, it’s going to be a very desirable place,” Burke said.
Watch: Nirav Shah on tracing the origins of coronavirus cases in Maine