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Short-Term Rentals: Can't We All Live Together?

Publisher Nick Barbaro on the CSTR debate

By Nick Barbaro, Fri., Aug. 3, 2012

It's disheartening that the discussion on this issue has turned back to whether commercial short-term rentals should be banned outright. That's a losing argument at this point, and it's not the proposal that came out of Planning Commis­sion's two-year negotiation process. And it's not what anyone interested in neighborhood preservation should be arguing for today and tomorrow, before it's too late.

The point is that Council Member Chris Riley's (actually HomeAway's) last-minute substitute proposal is a 180-degree swing back the other way, to near-complete deregulation of CSTRs, and the definition of commercial use being permitted in residential zoning.

That's wrong on a lot of levels, for a lot of solid reasons – but they're somewhat complicated reasons that don't lend themselves to sloganeering. And the neighborhoods are going to lose that argument if all the council members hear is "STRs are bad." Instead, they should be focused on the following:

1) Some meaningful limits have to go back into the ordinance. As it stands, there are no limits whatsoever on multifamily STRs. If that stands, corporations can and certainly will purchase entire apartment complexes to operate as (not mini-) motels, with none of the regulations (ADA, for just one example) that apply to B&Bs and regular hotels.

Similarly, there are no useful geographical limits in Riley's draft. I already know one block near where I live that's on the point of tipping to STR-only; two of the remaining families have made a pact to notify each other if either decides to move out, because they want to live in a residential neighborhood, not a tourist area. I think many of us know similar examples. And that phenomenon does indeed gut a neighborhood, decrease density, encourage sprawl, raise prices, kill schools, and all that.

2) The process stinks. As noted above, the PC argued this all out over a two-year negotiation period, and they came up with a compromise ordinance that didn't please either side. The Austin Neighborhoods Council wasn't happy that it wasn't a ban; HomeAway wasn't happy that it had density limits, ADA compliance, and other things. When both sides are unhappy, that's a successful compromise in my book. Then, after that, and after the council public hearings, Riley presented HomeAway's ordinance as a completely unvetted, undiscussed substitute, and that's what council passed on first reading – without even waiting for the educational impact study requested by two council members and Austin ISD trustee Rob Schneider.

3) The precedent stinks. CSTRs, like them or not, are clearly a commercial use. The legal system and common sense tell us that a residence is somewhere where people live. Under state law, it's where you live for 30 days or more (the PC cut that to 10 days in their version, but whatever). If it's something more transient than that, it's not a residential use. Nonresidential uses can be allowed in residential zoning (B&Bs, home businesses), but they come with certain requirements. And that's not what this draft ordinance does. Instead (primarily to skirt ADA compliance), it defines this clearly commercial use as residential. That's wrong under state law, that's wrong morally, and that's wrong as a precedent for zoning decisions.

4) The effect on owner-occupied STRs stinks. The most reasonable compromises lift all limits and onerous regulation from the folks who rent out their houses or garage apartments for a few weekends or weeks a year. The Riley draft very largely lumps them in with the commercial operators. That's a bargaining chip/argument that opponents should be making a bigger deal out of.

I love STRs – as a traveler, and as someone in a tourism-related business – but when I've stayed at such places in other cities, it's been in one of two conditions: either it's a resort community (beach house, ski rental), where the permanent population knows what it's gotten itself into and embraces it, or it's a single unit, surrounded by actual residents who are living their lives as usual and aren't outnumbered by the tourists. (As a crossover example, consider Venice, Italy. Wonderful city to visit, but no one lives there any more. There's not a single public school left in the city, and all the local workers live across the lagoon on the mainland, and flood the last train out of the city every night. That's not what we want Central Austin to be, but it seriously could happen, under this extremely ill-conceived substitute ordinance.)

I'm really not sure why Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole, in particular, aren't buying those arguments, but I suspect it's because all they're hearing is, "STRs are bad! Get off my lawn!" – which doesn't resonate with them, or with me, for that matter. And much as I love them, I don't think Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison did their side any favors by focusing their Monday Statesman editorial on the all-or-nothing argument that CSTRs are illegal and should stay that way. Yes, they are currently illegal, but the fact is, they're already here, de facto, and the question is, how do we deal with that?

Prohibition is rarely the best policy.

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