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Madland: Airbnb hosts in Madison owe their guests hospitality
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Growing up in a motel, I learned about hospitality.
Growing up in a motel, I learned about hospitality.

I spent most of my childhood at a motel. When I was little, my dad left his office job in Chicago to buy the Falls Motel in Black River Falls. It was his dream to own a motel in small town Wisconsin, though I'm still not sure of the reason. From then on, we lived in a house that was connected to the motel's office.

I remember walking with my parents as they did different things around the motel. They showed me the giant washing machines used to clean all the bedding. I'd watch as my mom tested the chlorine levels in the pool multiple times a day in the summer and salted the sidewalks clear of ice in the winter. There were regular visits from health inspectors, and new locks had to be installed on every room when state regulations changed.

Keeping that place running was a seven-day-a-week, 365-days-a-year job. When I was five-years-old, I asked my dad why he was doing all that work.

"It's all a part of being in the hospitality industry," he said.

Young me had no idea what running a motel had to do with hospitals.

Recently, others have gotten a bit of the experience of living in a motel. As covered by Isthmus in August, Airbnb allows Madisonians to rent out extra space in their house or apartment online to visitors. Last week, the Madison Common Council passed an ordinance that puts a number of restrictions on those renting out spaces in town.

As with almost any city council meeting, there was wonderful over-the-top citizen testimony. The Badger Herald captured this gem from Joe Sweeney, Director & CEO of 100State:

"When looking at Madison, we are a budding entrepreneurial city," Sweeney said. "We do not want to be seen as this high regulation area. It's going to deter companies, it's going to deter entrepreneurs and it's going to deter visitors from coming to the City of Madison and I don't think we can afford that as a city."

I'm sure some prospective business owner is going to look at Madison and say, "Well, we like the educated workforce and the blend of the best of small-town and city life. Wait, they've gone all Footloose about sleeping on people's couches? Toss out the business plan for our brand new Container Store, we're outta here!"

While Sweeney's testimony may have overstated the potential fallout, the ordinance that passed isn't perfect, not by a long shot. The hotel tax is just in there so the city can get a piece of the sleepover pie. I completely disagree with the requirement that the person renting out the space has to own the building. That is there to appease landlords, and it hurts tenants who use Airbnb to help pay their rent. At a minimum, I think the ordinance should be changed to allow for tenants to rent via Airbnb if they can come to an agreement with their landlord.

However, I believe in other parts of the ordinance. People renting out spaces will be required to install smoke detectors in rented rooms and get a license from the health department -- these are good ideas. Guests who come to this city deserve these basic public health safeties.

I like the sharing economy that Airbnb is part of -- it is one of the great hipster innovations along with nanobreweries and artisan aiolis. But if these new ideas of lodging are going to last, they'll need to include some of the safety requirements that come with renting a room. It's all a part of being in the hospitality industry.


[Update: Alder Mark Clear notes in a comment that the final ordinance does allow tenants to rent out space "if their lease allows it."]

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