We’ve all done it, or known someone who’s done it: used Airbnb to book a convenient and cheap place to stay for a weekend trip.
The concept of the “sharing economy,” which includes services like Airbnb, Uber and Lyft is becoming increasingly popular in America. In fact, according to a survey conducted last summer by Allianz Global Assistance, a Virginia-based firm that specializes in travel insurance, nearly 40 percent of Americans said they planned to utilize a sharing service while on their summer vacations. Specifically, 65 percent of millennials stated they rely on these services regularly.
As a guest, Airbnb is a dream come true: It’s more private than a hotel, has all of the amenities and comforts of home and is so popular amongst people that the concern for safety is relatively low. As a host, it’s an opportunity to showcase your hometown and bank a few extra bucks while you’re at it.
While the service is popular, especially in tourist destination towns, the logistics behind short-term rentals are more complex. Bill Lyons, deputy to the mayor and chief policy officer in Knoxville, Tenn., and his team are dealing firsthand with the backlash of Aribnb’s popularity in their booming tourist town.
“Our task is to catch up to an ever-changing economy, which started with ridesharing and has now expanded to home sharing,” Lyons said. “We have people here who have been operating Airbnbs without any legal basis to do so, and now we’re in a position where we’d like to get an ordinance in place to catch up to this activity and protect everybody involved.” Lyons and his team have been working diligently to get an ordinance in place to allow Airbnbs to operate in the city without compromising the integrity of neighborhoods, taking away from economic opportunity for hotels and motels or endangering residents of communities with short-term rentals in their neighborhood.
“We want to find a way to enable the short-term rentals to function — we don’t want to shut them down,” Lyons said.
In fact, Lyons wants to do quite the opposite. In researching cities of similar sizes and demographics with his team, it was determined that the last thing they wanted to do was order residents to stop using the service. “One of the most important lessons we took away from looking at other cities is that banning short-term rentals doesn’t work,” said Jesse Mayshark, senior director of communications for the city of Knoxville. “Cities that have the strictest rules have had some of the biggest problems. Finding a way to allow people to operate legally with some structured framework is, we believe, the best approach.”
Looking to do just that, the team hosted a few public forums to gather resident opinions before drafting an ordinance.
“We have had meetings dominated by would-be Airbnb hosts who were upset about limitations we might put in place and also meetings with neighborhood organizations that don’t want short-term rentals in their neighborhoods at all,” Mayshark said.
These differing opinions, Mayshark said, has the team at a crossroad. “We find ourselves arguing the integrity of neighborhoods, but also arguing the viability of the owner-occupied model by people who don’t trust it,” he said.
The result? An ordinance that allows homeowners to rent their already-occupied homes, but not to buy homes specifically for rental purposes.
“We want to allow short-term rentals only in owner-occupied homes,” Lyons said. “We want to close the possibility of people buying homes in neighborhoods and turning them into short-term rentals. In residential areas, we protect the fabric of the neighborhood by requiring them to be owner-occupied only. In commercial districts that allow residential use, we would allow people to buy specifically for full-time Airbnb usage.”
As a city with more than 200 active listings on Airbnb, Knoxville isn’t the only city pushing for ordinances to be in place regarding home sharing. In fact, ordinances already in place in cities like Ashville, N.C.; Denver, Colo.; Austin, Texas; and Nashville, Tenn. served as benchmarks for the efforts in Knoxville.
One Airbnb host based in Monterey, Calif., shared his experience on a public Airbnb discussion board, stating that he’d like to work with local offi cials to make his city’s ordinance something that was agreeable for both parties.
“We love using home sharing for all of our travels as it has always suited our desire to feel at home while abroad,” user Brad posted on Aug. 31, 2016, on the official Airbnb Community Center. “We recently opened our home on Airbnb to other travelers and found ourselves in the middle of a dispute going on with our local, outdated, city ordinance and a short term rentals alliance group. These disputes exist in many cities so I know this is not an uncommon thing.” This holds true in Knoxville as well.
“People want to be operating legally,” Mayshark said. “They’ve been asking where to get permits for short-term rentals, but we haven’t had that option.”
The next hurdle the team has to tackle is how to enforce its ordinance, should it be voted into creation.
“One of the biggest questions we encounter in drafting ordinances is enforcement,” Knoxville Staff Attorney Crista Cuccaro said. “We tried to make this ordinance simple to comply with, simple to enforce. We didn’t want something that was so strict we couldn’t enforce it.” Mayshark agreed, saying they will largely rely on complaints from surrounding residents if a short-term rental is violating the ordinance. Additionally, Knoxville is looking to work with a software company that will provide them weekly reports of properties listed on the Airbnb website for rent.
“If we can get something passed that is relatively easy, we’ll get a lot of compliance just from people wanting to operate legally, and then we can focus our efforts on the hopefully small number who are not.” The proposed ordinance for Knoxville went to a city council workshop for further review in June, with a vote to having taken place in late July after The Municipal’s deadline.