Slow rules: City still trying to come up with Airbnb regs

Debra Weiss rents a guest house made of refurbished materials called the Recycled House. She doesn’t buy the “bugaboo” that out-of-state moguls will buy up houses to turn them into short-term rentals and ruin neighborhoods.
Photo: AMANDA MAGLIONE Debra Weiss rents a guest house made of refurbished materials called the Recycled House. She doesn’t buy the “bugaboo” that out-of-state moguls will buy up houses to turn them into short-term rentals and ruin neighborhoods. Photo: AMANDA MAGLIONE

The day before this story went to press, 444 local properties were listed on popular short-term rental site Airbnb. The amount of lodging tax collected by Charlottesville? Very little.

To be fair, some of those listings are in Albemarle County, and the numbers available on the website vary from day to day. City officials estimate maybe a couple hundred residents are renting rooms or houses, but since this issue first came before City Council a year ago, the numbers still aren’t tracked and a year’s worth of lodging tax revenue has slipped away from city coffers.

That could be changing soon.

On July 14, city staff will go to the Planning Commission with amendments to the code that applies to bed and breakfasts, known in zoning lingo as “homestay,” to incorporate regulations for all the people renting their places through Airbnb.

The proposed ordinance says that owners don’t need to be on premises, but they do have to have a contact for a responsible party who can respond within 30 minutes, says city planner Matt Alfele. Landlords have to get a $35 business license, a provisional use permit, notify their adjacent neighbors, post an evacuation plan and collect lodging tax.

The part that could be a problem for some now renting out houses is that the property has to be a primary residence. City Council “doesn’t want companies from Florida buying up properties and renting them out,” says Alfele.

The fear is that neighborhoods would turn into transient lodging hotbeds of trash-wielding, drunken weekend partiers who take up all the parking. It’s a problem that’s happened four or five times, says Alfele, but others familiar with the complaints say it was primarily a property on University Circle and another on Jefferson Park Circle that caused the handful of complaints.

Travis Wilburn is co-owner of Stay Charlottesville [so is C-VILLE Weekly owner Bill Chapman], and he’s puzzled that City Council didn’t consult with him or any other industry professionals when they had a work session with the Planning Commission in May. “We’re the biggest in the business,” he says. “You’d think City Council would engage us.” He worries that Charlottesville will try to over-regulate an industry that’s been going on for 25 years—and he says vacation management companies are already compliant with laws compared to Airbnb landlords.

Wilburn started the Virginia Short Term Lodging Association in February after the city sent a warning letter to the owner of one of the properties Wilburn manages saying he was operating an illegal hotel.

That was Scott Stinson, who bought a derelict Belmont house, brought it up to code and improved the neighborhood, says Stinson. “Our position is, you’re entitled to rent your property.”

He said short-term rentals bring in more income—and that his neighbors suggested the idea. And he wonders why the city would want to interfere with such economic development and revitalization. “What the city’s afraid of, I have no idea,” he says. “This is legislation in search of a problem.”

Because the property is not Stinson’s primary residence, the new proposed regs would shut him out of short-term rentals, and he says would stop him from doing similar projects in the future.

The Virginia Short Term Lodging Association has proposed its own regulations, such as requiring insurance, and would like to see a percentage of houses available for rent that don’t have to be primary residences. “Is the city about to over-regulate while there’s a hotel shortage?” asks Wilburn.

Some people, like Stuart Houston, just didn’t want to stay in a hotel when his wife was seeking medical treatment at UVA over an extended period. He wanted to rent a place that would be available to them on short notice even if it was Parents Weekend or graduation, when hotel reservations are scarce. “It was nice to have a permanent base of operations,” he says, even temporarily, and one that he didn’t have to furnish.

Debra Weiss rents her detached, downtown Recycled House, a guest house made of refurbished materials, through HomeStay, and says people who rent their homes are not competing against hotels. “If people want room service or concierges, they’re not going to stay at my place,” she says.

Weiss thinks it’s unlikely real estate moguls will try to buy up whole streets and turn them into transient lodging because no one is getting rich off of Airbnb, she told the Planning Commission in February.

“There are things [the city] could do that make us as a group apprehensive,” says Weiss, who has a business license and pays the lodging tax.

And there’s a lot she likes about short-term rentals. “It’s a way for people to stay in their home, to help pay their property taxes,” she says. And it’s good for visitors to the city, too, who maybe can’t afford to rent three hotel rooms when they come into town for a wedding. “I’ve met people from all over the world,” she says. “I’m already booked for graduation 2016.”

After the July 14 meeting, the Planning Commission hopes to have a resolution to move on to City Council, says chair Dan Rosensweig.

Commissioner of Revenue Todd Divers just wishes the new zoning was in place so he could start collection of lodging tax. “We know what to do and how to get the [Airbnbers] in the system,” he says.

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