Mary-Ann Baldwin breaks down the grudge between Raleigh and short-term rentals.

Let’s Move Forward on Short-term Rentals

In Buzz, February 2018 by Mary-Ann Baldwin

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After three years of meetings, attended by hundreds of people, with ideas and proposals debated over and over, I just have this to say: Enough is enough.

I’m talking about how long it has taken the Raleigh City Council to act on regulations for the short-term rental industry, better known as Airbnb and VRBO. More than three years ago, a complaint was filed against Five Points resident Gregg Stebben for renting out a room in a basement apartment on Airbnb. (In Raleigh, it’s not legal but the city has not enforced the rules while it considered new regulations.)

After the original complaint, we brought forward a proposal from the Law & Public Safety Committee, which I chaired. We spent hours, weeks and months coming up with what we believed to be a fair compromise. It was dismissed by some members of the Council and never got a hearing.

When we reached another stalemate last year, the City Council appointed a task force made up of citizens with different perspectives and backgrounds. The regulations they suggested were more stringent than I was comfortable with, but in the interest of compromise, I voted yes. Again, another 4-4 tie vote.

What is the problem with short-term rentals? Councilor Russ Stephenson says at every turn that he loves Airbnb and stays in short-term rentals whenever he travels. But he has a problem approving them here. Why? I have never heard a specific concern, only general comments about what could happen.

But let’s look at some data points. In a city of 460,000 people, Raleigh has just 400 hosts and there are only 28 listings for full house rentals. The city is the third largest market for Airbnb in North Carolina. Half of the hosts are over age 50 – a pretty responsible group, I dare say. And in the three years since Stebben was cited, there have been just 15 complaints – several legitimate and dealt with promptly, and at least one unfounded. What does this tell you? It tells me that we’re creating an issue that doesn’t exist.

Short-term rentals give the average homeowner the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and to leverage their greatest asset – their home. It provides options to people traveling here for work or play. Some rent with their families when they come to the Bluegrass Festival. It’s an affordable alternative to a hotel. Entrepreneurs tell me that their next hire from out of town will stay in a short-term rental to check out the area and live like a local. They want to know what Raleigh is all about before making a commitment. Empty nesters rent out a room because they like the company and they can make a little money. One young woman testified at a public hearing that it was a way for her to keep her home after suffering an injury that kept her out of work.

If you’ve ever rented a room or a home on Airbnb or VRBO, you know there is self-policing. You rank the quality of the home and the homeowner ranks you as a guest. If you’re not a good guest, no one is going to rent to you. And if you’re not a quality host, no one will rent your place. It’s as simple as that.

It’s time for the Raleigh City Council to embrace the sharing economy, let people use their homes to benefit them and our community, and to actually embrace our motto, which states, “We are a 21st century city of innovation.” It is also time to listen to the solutions brought forward by citizens after years of hard work. And finally, I’d love to know how many city council members have stayed in an Airbnb or VRBO. My guess is the majority. I don’t think any harm was caused, and I don’t believe our community will be harmed, either.

The Short-term Rental Task Force came up with sensible rules and regulations. It’s time to approve them. Council members can always ask staff for a report in six months and then in a year, and add new rules or make adjustments if necessary. But this much is clear – it is time to act based on facts and data, and not with emotion and fear. We have a reputation as a progressive, forward-thinking community that embraces innovation and entrepreneurship. Let’s not jeopardize it.

Asheville Bans More Airbnbs

Raleigh isn’t the only North Carolina city grappling with what to do about short-term rentals. Last month, Asheville’s City Council voted to ban all new vacation rentals in its booming downtown area.

The mountain city’s downtown is a vibrant entertainment hub, with a medley of quirky, independently-owned boutiques, shops, galleries and world-class eateries and breweries that have cemented its reputation as an international travel destination. Its tourism-driven economy has seen a proliferation of short-term rental units on services such as Airbnb and VRBO.

But recently, locals have complained of being unable to find stable housing, with more and more property owners converting their dwelling units to short-term rentals and more developers building units with that specific purpose in mind.

Under the ban, only existing rentals with valid city permits will be allowed to continue to operate as short-term rentals in downtown Asheville. Property owners who want to rent out their condos, apartments, rooms and whole houses for periods of less than 30 days will now have to obtain special permission from the city council.

The move brings Asheville’s downtown business district in line with most other residential areas of the city where short-term rentals are illegal. It comes two years after the city council decided to crack down on vacation rentals, increasing enforcement measures and fines from $200 to $500. Proponents of the ban say it will help curb the loss of downtown dwelling units that are increasingly being converted to short-term rental properties.

“This is about stemming the tide of lost housing,” said Asheville Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, as quoted in Asheville’s Citizen-Times.

Property owners, on the other hand, are miffed about losing the opportunity to earn some extra income and the ability to provide homey, more personal experiences to tourists and visitors.

Keith Young, the Asheville City Council member who cast the lone vote against the ban on the seven-person board, told the Citizen-Times that he felt that property rights arguments for owners were worth considering.

“This process seemed to move so quickly we seemed to omit a lot of that,” he told the paper.

Short-term rentals—and their effect on Raleigh’s housing stock—is a conversation city leaders seem poised to return to in the coming months. Asheville’s move to ban them doesn’t appear to bode well for Airbnb proponents.

-Jan Porter

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