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Short-Term Rental Regulations Prove Difficult to Enforce

Short-term rentals, aggregated by companies like HomeAway, may soon see tighter regulation.
Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News
The City of Austin may crack down on short-term rentals brokered by companies like HomeAway and Airbnb.

This week, Austin City Council will start discussions about increasing the enforcement of short-term rental property regulations. Currently, the city requires short-term rental operators to hold a license, and renters must agree to certain rules.

But those rules have proven difficult to enforce, and council will hear recommendations on the license program and enforcement of  illegal rentals this afternoon.

There are roughly 1,000 options for renters looking to stay in Austin tonight. Through AirBnB, you could pay $58 to stay on West 28 ½ Street or $283 to shack up on East Fourth. Head over to HomeAway, you’ll find more than 1,800 options in the Austin area. There are plenty of options for those looking to stop off in Austin, but to the Austin Code Department, it’s not clear whether many of these short-term rentals are illegal.

Still, it’s unlikely that enforcement is going to come kicking down the door during your stay.

“As far as actually going in to be able to verify an alleged violation, we don’t have that authority, unless the actual person in control of the property gives us permission to enter,” says Marcus Elliot with the Austin Code Department.

To legally operate a short-term rental property, owners must pay a $285 application fee, provide insurance, pay a hotel tax and pass inspection. But the city has a cap on the number of short-term rental permits it will grant, allowing just three percent of residential homes to apply for them. Still, many rent out regardless. Elliot says it’s harder for code officers to discern between a short-term rental and a packed house. Code officers, he says, must verify whether guests are staying illegally while standing outside on someone’s doorstep.

Credit Austin Code Department
A map from the City of Austin showing the number of short-term rental permits per Census block. Red indicates the cap for that block has been reached.

Then there’s the issue of telling a family reunion from an illicit hostel. Austin code says in most parts of the city, you can’t have more than six people who are not blood relatives staying in your home, though in some places, that number’s four. But code compliance officers say it’s hard to prove that someone is not a homeowner’s brother, or aunt.

“If no one actually gives us any copies of any kind of drivers’ licenses or other documents to suggest any kind of relationship, then we really can’t enforce that alleged complaint,” Elliot says.

The code department will present recommendations on how to better enforce these laws to the city council’s Planning and Neighborhoods Committee today.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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