Airbnb and similar short-term rental services are illegal under Raleigh’s existing bed and breakfast zoning rules, said Eric Braun, chairman of the City Planning Department’s Text Change Committee, at a Sept. 15 meeting.
Braun, who is working with committee members to revise the rules and present a new ordinance to the city council, said some media coverage of the city’s plan has been skewed, and that proposals to regulate networked bed and breakfast models like Airbnb are not intended to stifle entrepreneurship.
“We are not putting regulations on something that wasn’t regulated before,” Braun said. “I think some people get mixed up and think we are regulating something that was not regulated. Well, it’s not legal — so we are trying to legalize it.”
Still, tensions exist inside city government about how to deal with the networked service — and how quickly.
The issue of zoning loopholes for Airbnb-type rentals was brought to the city’s attention last year following an anonymous complaint regarding homeowner and Airbnb host Gregg Stebben.
Stebben and his wife, who say they joined Airbnb just for fun, looked into Raleigh’s zoning regulations prior to renting a portion of their home.
“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 up people’s listings and go find them. We would only show up at your door if someone complained.’”
The complaint against Stebben, which assistant planning administrator Eric Hodge and assistant zoning administrator Robert Pearce Jr. confirmed is one of three Airbnb violations on record, spurred city officials to step in. They soon found a gap in zoning code that failed to address what the city terms “short-term residential rentals,” about 500 of which exist in Raleigh’s Airbnb network.
“We [want] to facilitate a balance … because … people didn’t necessarily sign up to have short-term rentals all over their neighborhood,” Braun said. “So we’re trying to figure out a way to balance the neighborhood versus somebody’s right to use their property.”
The issue first was heard by the city council Dec. 2, 2014, and the discussion of Airbnb’s legality has gone through various phases before reaching the Planning Department. Not all members of the council are on board with allowing it. Council member Kay Crowder voiced strong opposition to legalizing Airbnb-type services during the council’s first discussion on the issue.
“This would be an absolute nightmare,” Crowder said. “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.”
Crowder did not respond to requests for comment on proposed revisions to zoning rules by the Text Change Committee.
Council member Russ Stephenson, who agreed on Dec. 2 that Raleigh should allow 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 rental owners through media channels — and enforce the code using only a complaint-based enforcement policy — is the most logical approach.
“Certainly, there are people who are expressing concerns about these things, but there probably isn’t a need to go out and educate people who are providing the service individually about the problem because it’s going to be time-consuming and expensive,” Stephenson said.
The Text Change Committee’s rule recommendation is still under revision, but currently would require: off-street parking and special-use permits for rentals with more than two bedrooms; special-use permits for rentals without an onsite manager; carbon monoxide and fire alarms on all rental premises; a 30-day rental limit; and restraints on the type of residences eligible for rent, depending on the zoning district. City inspections would not be required under the ordinance, but officials would reserve the right to inspect properties in cases of potential violation.
“We’re trying not to [have a situation] where somebody goes and buys 10 houses and has tons of short-term rentals without leases, and can just move people in and out and disturb neighborhoods,” Braun said.
The committee also cited concerns about maintaining noise control, cleanliness, and general upkeep for short-term residential rentals.
Stebben, like other Airbnb users in Raleigh, has continued renting from his home while the city discusses new rules. And he says he’s heard no other complaints about his property — and few other complaints about Raleigh’s Airbnb culture in general.
“In the Airbnb world — or any other model — people pick my place because I have high ratings,” Stebben said. “So I can’t have a house that looks scummy or no one will stay. I’m motivated to make my house look as great as possible every day. That’s not true of many landlords, or their tenants.”
Stephenson, who says he uses Airbnb on a regular basis and likes the two-way review system, believes that other regulations are needed.
“I don’t think [the two-way ratings system] passes muster in terms of public health, safety, and welfare in terms of regulating short-term rental accommodations,” Stephenson said. “I think we have a responsibility to citizens to make sure that we approach this in a way that we can guarantee — as much as we can — the integrity of that health, safety, and welfare.”
Stephenson added that he would like to see an ordinance allowing individual neighborhoods to ban (by referendum, presumably) Airbnb use. He also would like to ensure that enough funds are available to pay for enforcement of the rules.
“I’m a big fan of Airbnb, but I also have a responsibility to the citizens of Raleigh to make sure that we do this in a thoughtful, equitable way,” Stephenson said.
Stebben says he is happy to be part of the Text Change Committee’s critical discussion, but would like to see the city take faster action, turning Airbnb regulations into a positive message about Raleigh’s goals for innovation and growth.
He drew parallels between the Airbnb controversy and the city’s recent moves setting curfews and space limits on restaurants and bars that serve patrons outdoors. The outdoor dining rules went from the discussion stage to a full-scale ordinance within weeks.
“To me, the issues of downtown drinking and Airbnb use are so closely related, it makes me wonder — why was that issue resolved so quickly, and yet it’s been almost a year, and we’re still talking about this one?” Stebben asked.
The committee is scheduled to meet again Oct. 20, where revisions to the proposal will be considered.
Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.