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They Thought They Had Found a Way to Live & Work in Asheville

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Another thing to consider is the project-based economy. It does not take a futurist to see the trend. Members of the new generation are not settling down in a lifelong career, moving up the corporate ladder at the same company, and buying a home in the suburbs for the spouse, two kids, and a dog. Tech-savvy kids these days are bopping from project to project in a global economy as fast as they can organize flash mobs. Stability is not in the picture.

But the city has a thing against transience. Or, that is what one would infer from the surface of a proposed ordinance. During a public hearing August 25, city staff made it known that they had been processing twenty-eight complaints lodged against home rentals to transients over the last five years. As the story unfolded, it seemed the greater fear was not wild parties so much as proliferation resulting from huge corporate entities buying up blocks of housing, setting up a separate LLC for each, hiring a property manager, and running STR’s. As Councliman Gordon Smith put it, “What I don’t want is predatory investors coming in and gobbling up our neighborhoods and our housing stock, and that is exactly what’s happening in other cities around the world.” During public comment, Bob Pearse illustrated, “I can see the corporate entities licking their chops. They’re going to descend upon this place like locusts.”

Mayor Esther Manheimer soliloquyed, “I hear the people who say, ‘This is my property. How can you tell me what to do with my property?’ . . . On the other hand, one of the purposes of living in a city is to have the protection of zoning.” She pulled out another worn-out cliché about damage caused in an investment when an asphalt plant is built next door. Manheimer said members of council had thoroughly researched the matter and hired somebody from the UNC School of Government to help. In the process, they learned, “Asheville has more short-term rentals than any city in North Carolina by hundreds. So to me, this isn’t something to mess up.” She criticized anybody who thought they had the answers because renting home space via internet connections, like Airbnb and VRBO, is uncharted territory.

Manheimer spoke against the suggestion that the genie was already out of the bottle. She deemed it ill-considered to suppose the city could let the process run wild and then rein it in. She called attention to Duluth, MN, a town similar in size and funky self-perception. Its town fathers were considering a moratorium because they had permitted thirty rentals, but fifty were listed online. “We have 900,” said Manheimer. She cautioned if council “got this wrong,” Asheville could become like one of those beach communities where, “every single house is a rental, nobody knows each other, everybody’ s making a mint.” It would not be a community, she said, and locals would be wondering, “What happened to this place? When did we go wrong?” She closed saying, “I hate to get so darn serious about this.”

On the agenda were two items, consideration of which was blurred somewhat in discussions. Council had no intention of legalizing STR’s, strictly defined as properties rented out by an absentee landlord for fewer than thirty days. They only wished to increase the fines from $100 to $500 per day of noncompliance because profits were such that $100/day was being blown off as a cost of doing business. Development Services Director Shannon Tuch explained once STR’s are discovered, the city will work with the proprietors to shut them down. Sometimes that means canceling reservations and issuing refunds, which can be expensive. As long as a web site advertising the STR is up, the proprietor is considered out of compliance. Tuch said when violators are identified, they either, “adjust their occupation, get a permit, shut down, or [put their property] on the market.”

Council was also going to amend its ordinances governing homestays. Homestays are defined as, “private, resident-occupied dwellings, with up to three guest rooms where overnight lodging accommodations are provided to transients for compensation and where the use is subordinate and incidental to the main residential use of the building.”

The suggested amendment would have jettisoned requirements that no two homestays be within 500 feet of each other, that the homes meet a size requirement, that off-street parking be required, and that a morning meal must be provided. Options to substitute a full-time employee for a residing landlord, and to display advertising signs, were removed. New requirements limited the number of homestays to one per parcel, prohibited operating them concurrently with a home occupation, forbade establishing homestays in detached accessory structures, required operators to carry liability insurance, and subjected all homestays to permitting with annual inspections. Tweaks to the ordinance included a prohibition on displaying goods for sale or signs advertising the same, mandated the property manager be a fulltime resident, restricted the size of exclusive homestay square footage to 25 percent of a home, restricted guest activities to lodging, and prohibited any form of nonresidential lighting.

Councilman Cecil Bothwell was not impressed. One thing that bothered him was a homestay rental could not have a kitchen. He mentioned a constituent who is Jewish. He keeps his kitchen kosher. He rents space in his house short-term, and he does not want to share his kitchen with people who do not observe the laws of kashrut. “I really do not get a lack of a kitchen,” he said. “The same exact unit you could unplug the stove and put it in storage and now it’s legal?” The prohibition of renting garage apartments made no sense, either. “There’s nothing magic about being under the same roof,” he argued. If a party gets too wild, the landlord will still hear it and be there to take action.

Bothwell next asked if the revenues from fees and permits would offset the cost of the homestay inspector the city was going to hire. Fee and permit values are set at levels to cover costs for processing, not enforcement. Collections would fall short of homestay czar’s $60,000 salary. But staff believed after an initial deluge of work, the czar would likely be able to take on other responsibilities. Bothwell tried to make sense of it all. “It looks to me like you’re gonna track them down on the Internet, and then go station somebody in the bushes to see if anybody actually shows up, and then knock on the door every day to see if they stay there three days or four days or thirty days, and then take them to court and have the owner say, ‘Well I rented it to them for thirty days, but they only stayed three.’ The enforcement piece there just seems wacky.” Bothwell speculated enforcement could only “really hurt a few people who get caught.” He added, “If there are 900 [STR’s] with city addresses, it’s 1.6 % of the houses in the city… I don’t think it’s gotten anywhere out of control at present.”

Manheimer said council had received hundreds of emails on the topic. The overflow room for the public hearing was overflowing. Sixty-one people had signed up for public comment, but several went home as the meeting stretched into bedtimes. One observation would be that those who represented groups were frightened about proliferation and corporate profiteering. Individuals speaking for themselves spoke as if hardship would follow passage of the ordinance.

Laurie Fisher, who described herself as a musician who sells CD’s out of her basement, would be hurt by the prohibition on running a homestay and a home office out of the same housing unit. “City Council should ultimately be totally hands-off of this whole thing,” she said to applause. “My neighbors love my guests,” she continued. “They park where I tell them to, and they are very accommodating and want to make sure that I and the neighborhood are all happy they are there. This is much better handled in the hands of the market and those using it. If you are annoyed by your neighbors’ visitors or homestayers, you can speak to them. That’s a neighborly thing to do rather than leaving it in the hands of a government who must hand-fistedly decide between kosher and non-kosher kitchens.”

Fisher said the sharing economy is the new paradigm. She pointed out that council did not care if her mother came to stay with her, though the impact would be the same. The problem was, “I have guests who stay there and give me money.” She suggested the regulation was only a “revenue grab,” and spoke of the “many natives already priced out of Asheville.”

Brian, a single father and artist, working at home, had a standalone vacation rental. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, now,” he said. He felt neighbors could sort out their differences. “It seems there’s a more localized way to police ourselves and make decisions as a community rather than being told what to do with our property.” He said he had spoken to the city’s zoning office about the rental four years ago when he set it up, and he had been told as long as the neighbors were OK with it, it would be fine; the city didn’t really enforce the ordinance. When the mayor pressed for details, he replied, “I don’t want to get people in trouble about it. I want to find a solution.”

Jeff Johnson and Rita Hayes operate an Airbnb. They restored a 105-year-old Montford house. The rent pays for the maintenance, and the people they employ are spending the money they earn in the local economy. Johnson is a classically-trained musician with Parkinson’s disease. He can no longer perform, and so he relies on rents for income. Arwyn Hawes was in a similar situation. She and her husband are busy with fulltime employment, school, and children. Last year, they paid $7500 for lawn service and cleaning, and the property looks much better for that. “I feel sick to know my money is going to somebody to click on Airbnb postings,” she said.

Echoing the theme that short-term rentals were inobtrusive, Paul Heathman said he met up with a neighbor who had come to the meeting to complain about homestays. The neighbor didn’t know Heathman had been running one, hosting 150 guests. Melissa Crouch said of her STR, “I don’t know how we got turned in, but it was disturbing to see Mr. Morgan I the bushes between our two houses trying to see what was going on.” Julie Nelson suggested the city go about nuisances the old fashioned way, with neighbors calling the police when disturbances erupt. Brandee Boggs said lawsuits would follow the snooping of “folks with nothing better to do with their day than to search these things out.”

Heathman said the ordinance was not solving the stated problem. A fine would hurt the little guys more than the “greedy corporations,” about which he added, motioning to the full chamber, “All those people behind me aren’t them.” Boggs added, “The wealthy will figure out the loopholes, and poor folks profiting off [their investments] will get hurt.” Numerous others spoke about specific needs and why the amendment would help or hinder them.

In the end, council decided to defer voting on the homestay amendment to allow time for further study. On a 5-2 vote, with Bothwell and Chris Pelly opposed, they did approve increasing STR fines to $500. Taking one more stab at citizen Andrew Lawler’s claim that the genie was already out of the bottle, Councilman Gordon Smith expressed optimism in city council’s power to overcome. It had fought authority to retain control of its water system, it had changed the course of the Swannanoa River for flood mitigation, and it continues to combat global warming by reducing the municipal carbon footprint.

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