Home Infrastructure Short-term rental debate rages on

Short-term rental debate rages on

Property rights vs. sense of community at heart of discussion

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A consensus on how to regulate short-term rentals — services such as Airbnb or HomeAway — seemed a long way off this spring, when the full City Council had its first chance to debate the issue.

Some council members questioned whether regulations are even needed.

Short-term rentals, or STRs, have become popular with travelers who sometimes are looking to experience a city the way locals do by renting space in neighborhood residences rather than commercial hotels or motels.

On one end of the spectrum, some council members argued in favor of property rights — that it isn’t the city’s place to tell people how, or even if, they can rent properties they own.

On the other end, other City Hall leaders expressed concern that too many STRs in a neighborhood could erode the area’s character because of a lack of permanent residents and, therefore, a sense of community.

A possible ordinance would distinguish between two types of STRs: Type 1, which are homes already occupied by a resident; and Type 2, homes that are completely available for rental.

“I get a lot of calls, emails and visits from constituents who are incredibly concerned about their neighborhoods,” District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said at an April council meeting.

Some of the biggest support for more regulation has come from the King William Association, whose members live in a historic district inside District 1.

“The position the board took was that it would only support Type 1 STRs,” said Chris Price, King William board president. “They’re opposed to any Type 2 STRs. … the fear is that investors are going to come in and buy all these houses up and just do STRs.”

Even as the council debated the issue at the meeting, there was an agreement over perhaps different sets of regulations for different districts. Neighborhoods riddled with vacant properties, such as in Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales’ District 5, could use the investment, she said.

“I feel like I have a much different concern,” Gonzales said. “At this moment, (anything) that would restrict the development of single-family homes in my neighborhood, I’m reluctant to support anything that would do that.”

The regulations presented to the council would limit Type 2 STRs to areas zoned commercial or multifamily. They could exist in residential neighborhoods, but would require a special exception from the city’s Board of Adjustment. Other regulations would require operators to carry a permit (which includes registration and inspections) and pay fees. The number of STRs that could exist in a neighborhood would be limited.

“They have this small section of the King William Association, which is a small group of people, trying to push legislation across the entire city,” said Tim Macy, who operates an Airbnb near Lackland Air Force Base.

“We’re all for reasonable rules … but looking at what is being proposed, getting a zoning variance is unnecessary,” he added. “That’s just trying to make things difficult.”

Anita Ortiz Lubke and her husband, who  operate four Type 2 Airbnbs as a business, said some rules are ok.

“I’m a reasonable STR owner and I have no problem with regulation as long as it’s reasonable and not overburdensome,” Lubke said. “We’ve paid hotel taxes from the get-go.”

Development Services Director Michael Shannon estimates about 1,500 to 2,000 STRs operate in San Antonio. However, only 290 are currently paying the hotel occupancy tax, he said.

Lubke bucked the notion that Type 2 operators are absentee landlords, not caring about their properties.

“Type 2 operators are operating it as a business and in order to be successful, I have to provide an excellent experience to my guests,” Lubke said. “That means my yard has to be mowed. The trash has to be emptied. The house has to be professionally cleaned. It has to be a great experience for the guests, otherwise the self-regulating environment online of Airbnb — the minute I get a bad review, that hurts me.”

Many council members even use short-term rentals. District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse said he actually operates an Airbnb spot in New Orleans, where STRs have been banned in the French Quarter.

At the meeting, Treviño presented a handful of amendments to the proposed regulations, including language that prohibits STR units funded with city housing incentives. Trevino’s district is home to the highest number of STRs, and so he hears from constituents almost every day concerned about the issue.

District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez had a different take: Why are we here, he essentially asked. STRs, through a handful of studies, do not negatively impact property values. And he cast serious doubt that STRs lead to more crime, or complaints from neighbors.

“I can’t think of anything less Texan than telling people who they can and can’t rent their property to,” Pelaez said.

District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry seemed to echo Pelaez’s assertion. More than a year ago, Perry’s predecessor, Mike Gallagher, asked city officials to begin looking into regulating STRs.

“It’s a property rights issue — to me, that’s the overriding issue,” Perry said. “Down on the coast, it’s nothing but bed and breakfasts and short-term rentals. I’ve gone down there quite a few times and used those. This is a changing world and a changing opportunity.

“Checking back with my staff since District 10 is the one who started this process, the real underlying issue here was, in District 10, we didn’t have an issue. I think we had one bad renter that was taken care of through existing ordinances.”

Perry also asked about the probability of the city being sued should it pass such an ordinance. It was mentioned by more than one city official that other cities, like Austin, are currently facing lawsuits over what STR operators are calling over-regulation.

“The more onerous layers of regulation, the more the likelihood they face a legal challenge,” City Attorney Andy Segovia told Perry. “What we’re trying to do is strike the right balance.”

Perry’s response: “My prediction is, yes, we will go down that same route.”

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