Julie Baca, who lives in Oktibbeha Gardens, wasn’t very familiar with Airbnb.
That changed a few months ago, when the owners of a nearby house began using the online service to regularly rent it out to visitors.
Baca, speaking to the Starkville Board of Aldermen on Tuesday, said roughly 17 guests have stayed at her neighbors’ home in a six-week period. This concerns her about the neighborhood’s safety, she said, as well as noise problems with so many people coming and going.
“No one would call that a neighbor,” Baca said. “One would call that a hotel. It would have a sign and the sign would say ‘hotel,’ and it would be required to meet regulations established for the safety and security of the people staying in the hotel as well as those residing near the hotel.
“About one year ago I thought I was getting a new neighbor,” she added. “But I learned recently, accidentally to my great surprise that I got a hotel.”
Airbnb allows users to rent out their properties — which can be an entire house, an apartment or even just a private room — to guests. The service uses an online marketplace where guests can browse available listings and book in advance.
Starkville, with its proximity to Mississippi State University and its athletics programs, is a popular destination on Airbnb. There are more than 100 properties in the city limits listed for rent on the website — compared, for example, to just 15 in nearby Columbus. A press release from Airbnb said property owners registered with the site hosted more than 1,700 guests in the city of Starkville during MSU’s 2018 football season, generating nearly $300,000 in supplemental income for owners.
People like Baca, though, are looking to city leaders to regulate the booming side hustle.
Anna Arnold, who owns the property near Baca’s, told The Dispatch her family purchased it as a second home. She said her family hadn’t initially intended to rent it out. However, home renovations overran their budget and Arnold said they started renting through Airbnb to help recoup some of the costs.
Arnold lives in Madison, and said her family comes for football games in the fall and has been up several times through the spring for baseball games.
Arnold said she hasn’t received any complaints directly, but she understands neighbors’ concerns about security. She said her family let the neighbors know when they began renting out the property.
Airbnb allows guests to review the property and for owners to review guests. Arnold said she relies on the system and only rents to guests with positive reviews from other rentals, and always asks for a description of why a prospective renter is looking to rent.
“For us, I know the neighbors don’t realize who’s going in,” she said. “Our house is not the cheapest, so that helps weed out some people. When we rent to someone, they have to have multiple positive reviews and experiences — we don’t rent to just anyone.”
Considerations for regulation
While Baca’s concerns didn’t spark a conversation at the aldermen table during Tuesday’s meeting, Starkville is considering putting regulations in place on Airbnb rentals.
As of now, property owners using Airbnb are neither required to have a permit with the city nor even let the city know the property is listed on the website.
Mayor Lynn Spruill said the city is looking into rolling any new regulations into its development code rewrite, which is expected to be finished in the next few months. She said City Attorney Chris Latimer and the community development staff is in the preliminary stages of considering what regulations are possible and feasible.
Other Mississippi cities are grappling with how to address Airbnb rentals. For example, Ridgeland forbids renting a property for fewer than 30 days. Rentals for less than three months require a special license from the city, according to a 2017 Mississippi Business Journal report.
Spruill said she doesn’t think Starkville should look at anything so strict, but find a middle ground between that and where the city is now. For example, the city could limit the number of times per year property owners can rent out to guests. That would accommodate game day rentals, she said, while cutting down on would-be homes being used year-round as guesthouses.
“I have a large number of friends and acquaintances who rent their houses out for game days,” she said. “I would hate to create a problem where they could not do that because that’s not an unreasonable thing. Now if you’re an absentee and you’re renting out every weekend, that’s the other end of that spectrum and I don’t agree with that at all.”
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said he favors letting people continue to rent out their homes through Airbnb without more city regulation. He said homeowners associations typically handle policing neighborhood restrictions, and he would prefer to let that continue.
“I personally list my house on game day weekends,” he said. “I’ve seen the benefits and have seen the friendships you can make. If we do have issues we should look at that on a case-by-case basis. But as far as someone renting their house, I totally support it.”
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said she thinks it’s worth looking into what options are available.
“I think, ideally, you find some sort of balance because we are a community that needs rental space from time to time,” Sistrunk said. “But it’s one thing to have a business operating in a neighborhood as opposed to a neighbor who occasionally rents their house out.”
Arnold said she understands and respects any decision Starkville may make when it comes to restrictions. However, she added that services like Airbnb aren’t new and it’s worth looking at the big picture and the benefits they can provide.
“In our experience, many of our guests are family members in town visiting students at MSU,” Arnold said. “Having a ‘home’ to gather in is a nice change from having to resort to a hotel room or dorm room, especially for larger families. One of our out-of-state guests specifically stated how nice it was to be able to cook a meal for her daughter.”
Airbnb declined to comment for this story and referred The Dispatch to the Mississippi Center for Public Police, which it said is “active” on the issue in the state. A center representative was not available for comment on Friday.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.