City leaders introduced a list of alternative options to proposed regulations of short-term rentals properties Thursday before holding a public forum where most people in attendance spoke against the proposal.
The current draft of the city’s unified development code includes a $300 yearly license to host a “short-term residential rental” in a single-family home. That includes, but isn’t limited to, weekend rentals, Mississippi State University game day rentals and listing such property on websites like Airbnb.
If a homeowner pays the fee, the proposed code only allows renting a property for up to 30 nights or 10 weekends per year and requires owners to live in the houses they offer for short-term rental.
The four alternative policies, available in packets handed out at the forum, offer different numbers and combinations of yearly night limits, license fee amounts, residency requirements and responses to complaints against a rental property. Two alternatives eliminate the rental night limit, and all four reduce the license fee to either $50 or $100.
The original plan and one alternative would require hosts to be permanent residents in the home they are offering for rent. Three other alternatives would require permanent residency if the host wants the licensing fee waived.
Starkville’s proposal and three of the four alternatives would revoke a short-term rental license after three complaints in 18 months. The fourth alternative would revoke the license after two cited complaints within a year.
The scheduled public input session for the unified development code was split into two sections: one for the short-term rental issue and one for the rest of the code — the latter of which dealt with other zoning and development regulations. The meeting room for the former in the Starkville Sportsplex was standing-room only.
Community Development Director Sungman Kim held daily meetings at City Hall from Monday to Thursday to answer any questions from the public about the proposed restrictions. Those meetings indicated the variety of opinions people have about the license fee, night limits or both, Mayor Lynn Spruill said.
“We’ve got to land somewhere, and this is an effort to try to land somewhere that makes sense for everybody,” said Spruill, who oversaw Thursday’s public forum with Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk and Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty.
‘They’re not neighbors’
Oktibbeha Gardens resident Julia Baca started the conversation in May when she told the board of aldermen that roughly 17 guests had stayed at her neighbors’ house via Airbnb in a six-week period, creating concerns about noise and safety.
That guest number has increased to 52, and the house is rented out almost every day, Baca said at the forum.
Beatty lives in Baca’s neighborhood, and regulating short-term rentals was one of the issues on which he ran for office in a special election earlier this year. He said he is flexible about the license fee and night limit but will not budge on the permanent residency requirement.
He is concerned that older, middle-class neighborhoods such as Green Oaks, Pleasant Acres or Plantation Homes will become targets for non-residents to buy houses with the sole purpose of using them as short-term rentals, he said.
“If 15 or 20 or 25 percent of Oktibbeha Gardens property is purchased for Airbnb property, I can imagine that when these things are not being rented, about every third house in my neighborhood is going to be empty and quiet and dark,” Beatty said. “That’s not a bad thing unless you consider the fact that I don’t know the neighbors, or the only neighbors I have are people who are coming and going from Texas or California or wherever, and they’re not neighbors. It’s my neighborhood.”
Another problem is the potential loss of affordable houses in Starkville’s real estate market if they are bought and used for business instead of permanent residency, he said.
Beatty said Starkville should follow the example of Auburn, Alabama, which is considering short-term rental regulations recommended by a task force made up of a range of citizens. Its proposal would limit short-term rentals to 240 days per year, create a license to renew every year and revoke licenses after three complaints in one year.
The case for Airbnb
Airbnb is a financial benefit to both renters and the city, and customers tend to enjoy their stay and conduct themselves properly, said several people at the forum, most of whom offer short-term rentals.
Roberta Nicholson lived in Oktibbeha Gardens until she bought a farm on Oktoc Road, and she said Airbnb allows her to keep many of her possessions at the house even though she no longer lives there. The money she earns via Airbnb goes toward improving her property in hopes of getting repeat customers, who at that point will no longer be strangers or unfamiliar with the neighborhood, she said.
Nicholson meets most of her guests and communicates with all of them, and she sets ground rules for how they can use her property, she said.
“I care about my neighbors. I know my neighbors. I lived with them for almost two years in that house,” Nicholson said. “I just feel like as neighbors we need to communicate and not — sorry, I’m a libertarian — bring in Big Brother to control everything for us.”
She supports the proposed change on three of the four alternative policies that waive the permit fee if the owner lives on the property, but she said the amount should be a percentage of the nightly cost instead of a flat fee because houses with fewer bedrooms earn owners less money per night.
Tyler Holbrook lives in the Carpenter Place neighborhood and rents out a separate structure on his property. He would meet the 10-weekend limit before MSU football season every year thanks to baseball and basketball season, he said.
“I’d be paying a fee and getting punished based on how much income I have the potential to earn, (and) for what? I’m not harming anybody,” Holbrook said.
Shannon Voges-Haupt is not a rental property owner but directly benefits from the local Airbnb market as the owner of a cleaning company, Worker Bees. Some owners pay the company monthly to clean their Airbnbs, and most guests are courteous and take care of the house, she said.
“I’ve never cleaned an oven in an Airbnb, so they’re going out to eat (in the city),” she said.
The company’s revenue from Airbnb is helping Voges-Haupt start a bonus program for her employees, she said.
Beatty claimed the group attending the forum is a “vocal minority” and that their financial stake in the potential regulations makes them more likely to attend public meetings and speak up. He said he wishes to represent those who do not want to see short-term rentals continue to spread in Starkville.
Spruill said the debate was productive and the city will look into other college towns’ regulations in addition to Auburn.
“No matter what we settle on now, an ordinance can always be changed or amended, so it’s never absolutely set in stone,” Spruill told The Dispatch after the forum.
The city needs to have some regulations in place in order to handle complaints like Baca’s, which seem to be uncommon but still need to be addressed, Sistrunk said.
“Most of the time, the system’s going to work just fine, but occasionally there are system failures,” she said.