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Short Term Rentals Causing Long Form Headaches for Council

Bill Spelman wants more info on rogue rentals.
Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News
Bill Spelman wants more info on rogue rentals.

The issue of short-term rentals – residential vacation rentals advertised by their owners on sites like HomeAway and VRBO – has fomented friction between renters and neighbors, and created a regulatory gray area for the city. Now, a resolution slated for this Thursday’s City Council meeting is dividing the dais.

Item 68 from Council Members Bill Spelman and Chris Riley asks the City Auditor's Office to compile police and code compliance calls on short-term rentals (STRs). They call the measure necessary to assess how many city resources problematic rentals consume in police and code compliance hours. 

But Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo are raising concerns about that assessment. They argue it could delay code amendments underway that are related to the rentals.

Spelman says, despite the City Auditor’s previous work on the issue (an examination of how many STRs were skirting the city’s hotel and motel bed tax), a comprehensive list of all Austin’s STRs is still needed.

“This is a case where we have not just a difference of opinion as to what it is the council ought to do, but a difference of opinion that is almost in diametric opposition as to what the basic facts of the case are,” Spelman said today in a council work session. “The Board of Realtors has a list of short term rentals which is very short, and very few of the short term rentals on their list seem to be located in the Zilker and Allandale neighborhoods, and none of them seem to have much negative impact on those neighborhoods.”

Spelman says the Zilker and Allandale neighborhood associations have a much longer list, which includes some properties that are not well maintained.

“I don’t know how many code violations we got. I don’t know how many crime violations and disorder calls. I don’t know how many 311 calls we’ve got in these places,” Spelman said. “It seems to me that for us to pass an ordinance without getting the basic facts of what really is at issue might be a problem.”

However, Morrison says the study could be more trouble than it’s worth, citing the workload involved. For example, City Auditor Ken Mory says sites like HomeAway don’t usually list a property’s specific address. He said the “shortest amount of time” his office would need to process Spelman and Riley’s request would be about three months.

Morrison also cited difficulties in ascertaining whether an STR was actually rented at the time of a police call. Tovo repeatedly noted concerns the study would delay implementation of the code amendments being drafted in relation to STRs, which are something of a minefield of their own.

Last June, the Board of Adjustment controversially ruled that any residential rental period lasting less than 10 days was a violation of the City Code. If that was enforced, it would basically shutter all local STRs. A less restrictive but still contested code modification is expected to wind its way to council soon; the language is tentatively expected to be presented to the Planning Commission January 24 (should the process not be delayed).

So what’s next? Judging from a somewhat heated back-and-forth over the usefulness of the study between Spelman and Morrison, you can expect more discussion at council’s full meeting this Thursday.

 Also on Thursday’s agenda:

  • Items 65 and 66, both relating to the always controversial realm of taxi regulation, will be punted from this week’s agenda. Item 65 would have created a $100 clean-up fee cabbies could charge fares who get sick in or trash their car; Item 66 would establish a flat, $2.50 “peak hour surcharge” from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Both items were pulled due to legal questions over their vague language; neither item mentions the word “taxi” in their description.
  • Item 6 would see council accept $900,000 in federal stimulus grants for weatherizing low-income residents’ homes. The windfall would come after the city lost $400,000 in stimulus money earmarked for the same purpose, due to a blown application deadline that earned some city staffers a dressing down from council.
Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.