Let’s Not Tax Airbnb for Pope’s Visit

America's Poorest Big City should leave entrepreneurs alone, just this once.

pope city hall

Councilman Bill Greenlee has an idea: He wants to tax Philadelphians who rent out their rooms for the pope’s visit.

I have a different idea: How about we don’t?

Maybe I’d think differently if the 8.5 pecent tax on room rentals would go to city schools, a one-time windfall they surely wouldn’t refuse. But as the Inquirer notes: “Hotel tax revenue is split between the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, Visit Philadelphia, and the Convention Center.” Those are worthy organizations: They bring visitors and their money to town — and as the old trope goes, it takes money to make money, etc. etc. 

But a windfall for the convention center should be weighed against this: Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America. One that’s historically been pretty good about squelching any sign of entrepreneurialism in the crib, whether it’s through the (now reformed) business privilege tax, or through the nightmare that can be dealing with L&I. The simple act of hanging a shingle puts you at the mercy of one of America’s worst bureaucracies. It’s just no fun.

So, maybe once, maybe we don’t do all the stuff we do? Maybe let’s make it easy for Philadelphians to host out-of-towners for this one visit, maybe let’s let them have a bit of a windfall without the city having to get a taste just because it can.

Why not just leave it alone — for now?

As America’s economy changes to a “gig” economy and Americans increasingly have to create their own economic opportunities, it’s true that tax revenue streams will shift around — and that, in turn, could have an effect on the services we receive. Councilman Greenlee is right to want to figure out how we’ll keep City Hall’s lights on when Americans’ increasingly opt to stay in a stranger’s house instead of a hotel while on the road.

“These things have really sprung up, not just in Philadelphia, but all over the country,” he told reporters last week.  “And they’re pretty much unregulated. And particularly now, with the pope coming and the DNC and other things happening in Philadelphia, a lot of these rentals are generating a lot of income.  And it just seems fair that the city would get its fair share of the money that’s coming in.”

Here’s the thing, though: The pope’s visit is a one-off. We may never see anything like it again in our lifetime. It’s probably not great to make policy just to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

What’s more, the city’s already going to get its fair share. Hotels will be booked, restaurants will be filled, food carts will be lined up as close to the parkway as they can get for the reported 1.5 million people expected for the pope’s visit. A lot of money is going to be made, and a lot of it is going to go to City Hall in the form of sales taxes and more.

But the deeper, longer-lasting changes caused by the rise of the Airbnb economy will take longer to suss out.

That’s not to say City Hall should sit on its hands. It should (as already suggested) amend the zoning code to allow for limited lodging in residential districts, so that Airbnb landlords don’t accidentally run afoul of the law. And I have no problem requiring a license for those landlords who rent out space more than 31 days a year.

A bunch of folks, though, are going to share their homes and rooms with strangers just this once, for the pope’s visit. We want them to do that, too: There aren’t enough hotel rooms to hold everybody. Now’s the time to make the process easier, not more difficult. Save the Airbnb tax for another day — after the pope leaves town.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.