By Allison Schaefers
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From airbnb to VRBO, people are posting their mobile rides for rent. But not everyone agrees that parked vans, buses or campers are legitimate sleeping spaces.
There is a state law against sleeping in your vehicle on public streets at night, but that hasn’t stopped at least one Oahu host from parking a former car rental shuttle he turned into a mobile vacation rental, dubbed Hippie Bus Hawaii, in front of Kapiolani Park and selling beds with an ocean view.
The growing popularity of online hosting platforms such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO has fostered quirky new inventory such as the mobile rentals where hosts offer sleeping space in parked vans, buses or campers.
On Thursday, eight vehicles were available on Oahu for Airbnb users who wanted to book from Jan. 20 to 27. The least expensive option was Hippie Bus Hawaii for $25 a night. Other options included a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter light-commercial van that sleeps four for $132 a night and a Volkswagen Vanagon camper with room for two for $100.
Alternate vacation rentals like these and their real-estate counterparts have allowed tourism to grow beyond Hawaii’s traditional lodging inventory and provided an opportunity for hosts — even those who don’t own real estate — to cash in on the success of the state’s visitor industry. It also has offered adventurous visitors a new, sometimes cheaper way to experience Hawaii.
MORE ON HIPPIE BUS
Hippie Bus Hawaii rentals include ocean views and maybe a visit from police
But the role vacation rentals have played in driving visitor arrivals close to a benchmark 10 million annually and the corresponding strain on infrastructure, affordable housing and even the fabric of local communities has contributed to some local residents’ frustration and negative attitudes toward tourism.
County and state lawmakers and nonprofit agencies, especially those dealing with affordable housing and homelessness, have proposed solutions that have fallen short of effective reforms.
One problem with the recent advent of mobile vacation rentals, according to North Shore advocate Mike Biechler, is that suddenly “tourists aren’t just coming to a neighborhood near you, they are coming to a public park or natural resource near you.”
Rules that may impact mobile vacation rentals
>> A state law prohibits sleeping in a vehicle parked on public streets at night and Oahu doesn’t allow the practice in city campgrounds.
>> Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting does not allow camping on land zoned for residential use. Camping is potentially allowed in other areas, such as resort-zoned places, with the permission of the property owner and/or a DPP-issued conditional use permit.
>> Most city- and state-managed lands require permits to conduct commercial activity.
>> The state requires a commercial service permit to provide prearranged ground transportation and greeting services at airports.
>> The state Public Utilities Commission would likely regulate mobile Airbnb listings that aren’t exempted and transport lodgers or tour guests for compensation over public highways.
>> A commercial driver’s license issued by counties may be required.
>> The trust protecting Kapiolani Park bans commercial activity there.
Source: Star-Advertiser research
Biechler said mobile vacation rentals are even harder to manage than land-based ones since they typically lack neighbors who will complain. Also, the concept has not been adequately regulated, since most vacation rental legislation was written before this newer business model was conceived.
Mark Howard, a Waikiki resident and real estate broker, didn’t know where to turn when he noticed Hippie Bus Hawaii was parked for long stretches at Kapiolani Park, where commercial activity is not permitted. In November, Howard alerted the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, state Rep. Tom Brower and Airbnb’s local representative that he had concerns Hippie Bus Hawaii was operating illegally.
Weeks later, Howard is still frustrated. And so is Alethea Rebman, president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society, who said the park is supposed to be “free and open to the public, and people can’t kapu certain areas for their own use.”
“We’ve been fighting commercialization at Kapiolani Park for 30 years, but a hotel being operated on park land is really beyond the pale,” she said.
Hippie Bus Hawaii owner Kane Oliver said loopholes in the laws regarding his various activities, which include providing airport pick-up, tours and surf lessons, allow him to operate without permits.
“Basically wherever we park is home,” Oliver said. “I surf and swim every day and try to catch fish for dinner. This is my van or my truck. It’s not registered as a commercial vehicle. My friends throw in gas money for the experience … .”
Matt Middlebrook, public policy manager for Airbnb, said in November the company had removed Hippie Bus Hawaii listings from its site. But within days to weeks, Oliver had found a way to get his listing back online. Airbnb removed the listing again Friday and canceled future reservations after being notified of the renewed listing by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Elizabeth Reilly, president and founder of Livable Hawaii Kai Hui, said state and county lawmakers must promptly address the mobile vacation rental fad. She also wants Airbnb to remove the entire category of mobile vacation rentals from Hawaii listings since they are at odds with state regulations.
“Airbnb has to be part of the solution. This man and his bus doing his granola experience wouldn’t have an audience without Airbnb,” Reilly said.
“Lawmakers and stakeholders need to have (an) immediate conversation about how this is occurring and how to stop it. Right now it’s a runaway train that will crash. There’s going to be a serious problem.”
Enforcement is tricky
The quickly evolving vacation rental situation has left city and state officials, who already were struggling to regulate more conventional operations, scratching their heads.
Enforcement is complicated because mobile vacation rentals are a hybrid involving motor vehicles used as visitor accommodations, mostly in resort and recreational areas. That is something not easily enforced under the same regulations that typically govern vacation rentals, public parks and motor carriers.
Curtis Lum, spokesman for the city Department of Planning and Permitting, said vacation rentals are legal if they are in a designated resort district or obtained a nonconforming-use certificate (NCU) before the department stopped issuing them in 1989. However, if vacation rental use involves camping it’s not eligible for an NCU, he said.
Lum said camping is not permitted on land zoned for residential use but is allowed in other areas, such as resort-zoned places, with the permission of the property owner and/or a DPP-issued conditional-use permit.
Gary Kobayashi, compliance officer with the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates motor carriers, said the issue of mobile vacation rentals hasn’t come up before. He said the PUC would get involved if the mobile rentals are used to transport lodgers for compensation over public roads.
“The PUC will actively investigate if this operation is in violation of our rules and if other similar businesses may fall within our jurisdiction,” Kobayashi said. “Mr. Oliver does not have a certificate issued by the PUC; he has not been cited. However, if he is found to be in violation of our rules, we will take appropriate action.”
In the case of mobile vacation rentals parked on city streets at Kapiolani Park and elsewhere, enforcement likely falls to the Honolulu Police Department or the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Parks spokesman Nathan Serota said sleeping in vehicles on public roads or city campgrounds isn’t allowed.
Oliver has past and pending violations for trespassing, including staying overnight in closed parks, and a number of traffic offenses as well.
His tour and surf instruction activities likely fall under state Department of Land and Natural Resources jurisdiction.
But unless there’s a more concerted regulatory effort, more entrepreneurs like Oliver probably will continue cruising down the vacation rental highway.