AshevilleCity - County Gov.Leslee KulbaNews Stories

When Reasonable People Disagree, the Law Should Be Silent

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By Leslee Kulba- News releases from the Asheville Police Department this month tell of an armed robbery at a Home Trust Bank, a homicide at Just One More Bar, a gunshot wound putting the victim in critical condition at a house party in Deaverview, multiple break ins, two child pedestrians killed in a hit-and-run, and a guard stabbed at Home Depot for confronting a couple stealing several power drills. The police also promoted events to help the homeless and support the families of victims of drunk driving.

Members of Asheville City Council have shared they want a safe community. They also want to help the homeless. But there are larger problems – like growing the tax base supported by the tourist trade, guarding against hotel proliferation downtown, and trying to build twenty-year rent controls into inclusionary zoning policies in the name of increasing affordable housing stock. “Therefore,” council is making it more difficult for homeowners to rent out rooms short-term, arguing homeowners must do their part to abate the affordable housing crisis by renting space long-term or not at all, even though the more lucrative short-term rentals could be the only thing standing between homeowners and foreclosure.

It’s nothing new. Established businesses typically have larger lobbying forces than entrepreneurs on the cutting edge of a technology shift. Means of circumventing regulatory burdens, well-illustrated by the Uber-for-X craze, cut into market share, spurring incumbent enterprises to turn to government to impose barriers to market entry. In recent years, city council has imposed paperwork and fees on food trucks, Airbnb’s, and, at Tuesday’s meeting, an electric taxi service free to users, Slidr. On top of the franchise agreement, council wanted to require the company to pay living wage.

Council also received an update on its Homestay (Airbnb) Permitting Process, passed just over a year ago. At the time, in epic soliloquy, Jonathan Wainscott, told council, “If the Flotsampeppers from Duluth are visiting my house for the weekend, it’s none of your business if they’re here for a funeral because they’re my family members or whether they’re there to enjoy all the beer that you’ve paid to convince them to come to enjoy.” As he said at the time, the city has nuisance abatement ordinances for disruptive behavior.

Regardless, in the past year, the city has hired a fulltime staffer to make sure people are not renting rooms in their homes short-term without a permit, and equipped him with a vehicle. Also involved with enforcement have been untold man hours from the city’s legal, planning, and permitting departments. Their activities include changing ordinances, requesting records, handling lawsuits, and preparing staff reports. In return for the investment, the city has permitted 135 homestays out of 144 applications. Permits cost $200 apiece. The city has also taken action against 117 people renting rooms in their homes without a permit, issuing eleven citations, valued at just over $400,000.

Mayor Esther Manheimer wanted to clarify the city is not getting rich off this. Fine revenues are remitted to public schools, and homestay room taxes fund the Tourism Development Authority, with only a portion trickling down to the city. Permitting fees do go to the city’s general fund, but they are insufficient to recover costs of enforcement.

For the coming year, it is proposed the enforcement program continue to fund the fulltime development review specialist (DRS) and the vehicle, add a part-time administrative assistant, and contract with Host Compliance, a company that looks for unpermitted Airbnb’s who advertise outside of normal compliance officer hours. That strategy, at $121,002 this fiscal year, was promulgated as more cost-effective than hiring another DRS.

Council also heard a report from the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Task Force. It was created to determine whether or not the city should allow ADU’s, or units detached from the dwelling of a would-be host, to be rented as homestays. Foreseeing contention, the city invested $7,250 in a facilitator expert in building consensus. The process resulted in solidifying two camps. Core Idea 1 would continue the ban on ADU’s as short-term rentals and raise awareness about their illegality. Core Idea 2 would lift the ban, but impose every restriction proposed in order to get buy-in for starting a legalization process. During public comment, John Farquhar broke with the consensus process to propose a third option used in Portland, Austin, and Santa Fe. It would legalize ADU homestays without special regulation to spur construction of units that, in those cities, are evolving into long-term rentals. He suggested an eighteen-month process for strategic data collection.

Councilman Cecil Bothwell, considering the issues at the top of this article more important, made a motion to direct staff to prepare ordinances that would come back to council to pilot legalized ADU homestays. His motion was defeated, and council eventually decided to continue the discussion next year.

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