The Advocate

By Jay Williams, Jr.

Mesmerized by the sensational solar eclipse, some skyward-looking Charlestonians may not have realized that more than two million tourists surrounded them. Though many eclipse visitors stayed at one of the sold-out hotel rooms, thousands were lodged illegally in more than 2,500 private homes.

Short-term rentals represent the city’s fastest growing industry. Finally, the city is moving to curb it.

Make no mistake, short-term rentals, or STR’s, are big business. Internet services like Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway and Trip Advisor allow people to advertise and rent a room, a suite or even an entire house or building nightly. As addresses aren’t revealed on Internet ads, the transactions are largely hidden from local authorities. But be assured that one of them is near where you live.

The companies that sell these rooms in your neighborhood are sophisticated, aggressive and fast growing.

Airbnb is only nine years old, but it already features over 3,000,000 worldwide short-term rental listings. According to Airdna, a rental monitoring website, there are 1,531 Airbnb listings in Charleston, a number that’s growing 84 percent annually!

If you think these are families or single elderly sorts renting out a spare bedroom, consider that 72 percent of “active rentals” are for “entire homes,” truly mini-hotels. And of the 809 Airbnb “hosts” listed in Charleston, nearly 500 them are either “multi-listing hosts” or “super hosts,” apparently an enhanced investor-class category. That’s why we’re getting worldwide investors buying in to cash in on Charleston’s charm and tourism explosion. And remember, this is only Airbnb data; the other big companies are here, too.

STR’s are not just big business; they’re invasive, illegal and unregulated in most of Charleston except in commercial sections of Cannonborough-Elliotborough. They violate residential zoning ordinances, disrespect neighbors and neighborhoods and often create parking issues, litter, late night noise and … worse.

Think of short-term rentals as termites chewing away at the city’s balance of uses and hollowing out a neighborhood’s residential cohesion, causing irreversible structural damage to our community. Unchecked, STR’s will destroy Charleston from the inside.

Councilmember Mike Seekings is no fan: “It’s a livability issue. Short-term rentals are turning neighborhoods block-by-block into hotels. They’re a safety issue; no standards, no way to regulate, no way to know who is in there if there’s a fire. And they’re an economic issue; unlike hotels, they don’t pay fees and taxes. These people are getting a free ride.” Seekings added, “Short-term rentals are also destroying the affordable housing stock on the peninsula by displacing long-term renters with tourists.”

Not everyone is on board

Some residents disagree. They support using their homes for nightly rentals citing their property rights. That’s a notion that Randy Pelzer, vice president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, rejects outright. “Our zoning ordinances don’t just protect the individual property owner; they also protect their neighbors,” Pelzer said, adding that everyone who buys a home in a residential neighborhood is protected from seeing a bar or a restaurant pop up across the street and they’re also protected from having a mini-hotel open next door.

Councilmember Seekings agrees, “My constituents are overwhelmingly concerned about STR’s and they want the laws on the books enforced.” Asked what the city has done to curb short-term rentals, he replied, “Not enough.”

Once active in pursuing illegal rentals, the city was caught up short a year ago by a judge’s adverse ruling and has only recently pursued a single lawsuit against a “party house” owner, a suit the city expects to win. In general, the city has been paralyzed because some officials believe the laws are too difficult to enforce.

While city Planner Jacob Lindsey thinks existing laws are “enforceable enough,” he believes that the enforcement process is “very cumbersome.”

That may be changing.

After enduring weeks of frustration and inaction on the city’s largely rudderless Short Term Rental Task Force, Historic Charleston Foundation’s Manager of Advocacy Christopher Cody introduced this resolution:

The proliferation of illegal short-term rentals in the city of Charleston and the inefficacy of current enforcement require immediate action. We recommend that the city undertake emergency enforcement measures and allocate the necessary resources to address this issue. We recommend that reasonable enforcement of the law be achieved prior to the establishment of any new regulatory scheme for short-term rentals.

The resolution passed 12-2 and it will go on to the Planning Commission.

Regulation is proposed, but will it pass?

The city took action last week. The city staff came to the Task Force meeting armed with proposed ordinances to regulate short-term rentals with what Lindsey touts as “a more streamlined process.”

“The city is recommending no expansion of STR’s in the Old and Historic District or the Old City Districts along with additional regulations to allow us to enforce them more efficiently,” Lindsey said, essentially prohibiting short-term rentals south of the Crosstown.

“In addition, Lindsey said, “We propose to criminalize the advertisement of STR’s as a violation of city law that could be easily enforced. We will clearly define what an STR is and then by requiring a registration of all STR’s, if an ad is posted that does not give the city’s registration number or runs afoul of other regulations,” we’ll have a “common sense” means of enforceability, Lindsay said.

Outside the Old City districts, new regulations would permit STR’s on a limited basis with strict regulations that include requirements for a business license and a short-term rental permit. Lindsay said that, “the owner-operator must be a full-time resident, live on the property and be present during the rental period.” He added that only four individuals could rent at any given time, “as more than four represents a commercial activity in conflict with residential zoning.” Only one STR permit will be allowed for each property and there must be one legal, maneuverable off-street parking place per bedroom.

Among other regulations, “The owner of a short term rental property must remain in good standing to renew their business license,” Lindsey said. The city will log complaints, nuisance issues and other violations that can cause the license to be revoked. Most importantly Lindsey added that, “multi-day fines for violations would be commonplace.”

Tighter regulation and enforcement can’t come soon enough.

Dan Beaman, president of Harleston Village Association whose members are overwhelmingly opposed to STR’s, is hopeful but leery. “Our neighborhood is fragile to begin with because we have so many rental properties. They come in and they’re here to party, they take up parking, they’re not neighbors, they’re transient … We don’t want Harleston Village to turn into a horizontal hotel.”

“New Orleans hired 11 staff members to enforce their new regulations,” Chris Cody said. “Last year we lost out on $400,000 of license revenue we should have collected and city council is unaware of the scale of the problem.

“To collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes and fees, it’s worth hiring staff and a lawyer. All the city needs is the political will to do it,” Cody concluded.

 

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

 

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