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City Hall Hustle: The Return of Short-Term Rentals

Wells Dunbar, KUT News

The Austin City Council convenes this Thursday to a 78-item agenda. And one item – on first glance – might strike fear into the heart of even the most hardened council watcher: short-term rentals.

Or maybe not this time. In contrast to the council’s hard-fought first-round of rental regulation, the sponsors of Item 40 – the rental resolution – see it as more of a clean-up item. With the number of properties participating in the city’s rental registry painfully low, the measure creates new classes of rentals – like renting one room, instead of an entire dwelling – and creating fines for unlicensed rentals – up to $2,000 a day.

It also changes neighbor notification requirements – and that drew the most discussion at the council’s Tuesday work session. Shifting from snail mail neighbor notices to email contact was presented by the sponsors as a way of reaching more folks, but council member Laura Morrison expressed concern. “It’s hit or miss in terms of the neighborhood association email lists,” Morrison said. “I think some of them are much more robust than others.”

But sponsor Bill Spelman noted neighborhoods with lots of rentals – like Zilker and Pemberton Heights – wouldn’t have that problem. “The primary concentration of short-term rentals is in active neighborhood associations where we have excellent lists,” Spelman said.

The resolution also calls for the City Manager to launch a map and online database of short-term rentals – which raised the specter of thefts in vacant rental homes.

“One idea was what I called the police blotter approach,” said Neighborhood Planning & Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven. “You read the newspaper, sometimes they’ll say there was a crime in the 38 hundred-block of a certain street, or something like that.”

Rounding Out the Agenda

In Fact Daily’s Mike Kanin helps the Hustle note more items of interest this Thursday – including an item examining infrastructure improvements to Highland Mall and surrounding Airport Boulevard, plus yet another agenda appearance of the council’s 24-hour trail resolution (funded during the council’s mid-year budget update).

The council has also called a special-meeting on Friday to vote on whether to approve a settlement with Austin Energy customers who live outside city limits (Homeowners United for Rate Fairness).

When Austin Energy raised its rates last year it created five pricing tiers – charging users more the more the energy they used. Kanin tells the Hustle the agreement may slash the higher rate tiers for out-of-towners:

“Early indications are that the utility is going to agree to allow out of city ratepayers to carve off the top two tiers of the five tier block rate structure, which will ultimately save the most heavy users of electricity a bunch of money on their bills.”

A settlement means Austin Energy won’t have to argue its case before the Public Utility Commission – which means less ammunition for state legislators looking to deregulate the city-owned utility. 

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.
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