After months of discussion about how to legalize and regulate Airbnb and similar services in Raleigh, the full city council soon may decide to move the short-term rental service out of legal limbo, based on a rule change passed Oct. 27 by the city’s Planning Commission.
Short-term lodging services currently are illegal under Raleigh’s bed-and-breakfast zoning rules, a fact that has led to confusion because it hasn’t been reported correctly in some media outlets, said Eric Braun, chairman of the Planning Commission’s Text Change Committee.
Zoning loopholes were brought to the city’s attention last year following an anonymous complaint lodged against Raleigh homeowner and Airbnb host Gregg Stebben. Stebben and his wife joined the online rental network just for fun, and looked into the city’s zoning regulations prior to listing their room on Airbnb’s website.
“I called the City Planning Department,” Stebben said. “I spent a long time on the phone with them, and what they said was, ‘We don’t know if it’s legal or not. Go ahead and do it, because we’re not going to pull people’s listings and find them. We would only show up at your door if someone complained.’”
The complaint filed against Stebben and his wife — which assistant planning administrator Eric Hodge and assistant zoning administrator Robert Pearce Jr. said is one of only three Airbnb violations on record — triggered what has now been almost a year-long discussion among city officials.
The issue initially was heard by the city council Dec. 2, 2014, and the Airbnb discussion cycled through many revisions before reaching the Planning Department.
Stebben, who has been to every meeting since the start of the discussion, says the process is taking longer than it should.
“It’s been a lot of nothingness,” Stebben said of the majority of Law and Public Safety, Planning Committee, and Text Change Committee meetings. “Going to meetings. Nothing happened. Going to meetings. Nothing happened.”
Though the process has been slow, Council member Russ Stephenson — who says he uses Airbnb often when he travels — thinks it is necessary to take more time while making these new rules.
“I don’t think anybody’s dragging their feet,” Stephenson said. “I hope they’re not dragging their feet. … I am a proponent of Airbnb. But there is no advantage to us in walking into a situation where we’ve not thought it through.”
Tensions inside city government about how to deal with Airbnb have slowed progress in completing the rules. Not all council members have been open to the idea of legalizing Airbnb. Council member Kay Crowder voiced strong opposition to Airbnb’s presence in Raleigh during the council’s first discussion about the issue.
“This would be an absolute nightmare,” Crowder said at the Dec. 2 meeting. “I don’t know how else to put it. In District D, where such as it is I already have issues going on, it just wouldn’t be a win for the district.”
Carolina Journal asked Crowder if she had changed her opinion of Airbnb. She declined to comment or answer questions.
Stephenson, who said on Dec. 2 that Raleigh should legalize short-term rentals like Airbnb, initially joined Council member John Odom in calling for swift enforcement of existing city code while new regulations were formed.
Stephenson now states that the city attorney’s proposal to notify short-term lodging owners through media — and enforce the code using only when complaints are filed — is the most logical solution to managing Airbnb use while the city works to put new rules in place.
The proposed rules that were approved by the Planning Commission include: distinctions between residential home and nonresidential home rentals, occupancy limits, parking regulations, use restrictions that ban special events or business transactions from taking place in Airbnb rental spaces, and specific permit requirements for what the city now terms “short-term residential lodgings,” rather than “short-term residential rentals.”
Those wanting to rent two rooms or fewer will have to fill out a zoning application with the city. Those seeking to rent three or more rooms — or their entire homes — will have to get a special-use permit from the city’s Board of Adjustment.
The pending legalization of Airbnb is a step that will make a strong statement about Raleigh’s vision for the future, Stebben said.
“If they don’t pass this, if they keep Airbnb illegal, what message do you think that’s going to send companies who come here?” Stebben said. “Especially tech companies? You’re going to be a tech CEO. You’re going to book your flight. And then you’re going to get your Uber. And then you’re going to go book your Airbnb and there’s not going to be any Airbnb. What message does that send? Not good for business.”
The ordinance will be considered at the Nov. 2 city council meeting. If the council does not approve the ordinance, it will return to the Law and Public Safety Committee for further revisions.
Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.