San Antonio Task Force On Short-Term Rentals Nears Completion

Nov 2, 2017

Jim Smith squinted at his checklist. Before renting out one of his properties, he walks through to ensure it is in good condition. Crouching next to the toilet, he checks for extra toilet paper. He makes a note about the soap stain on top of the washing machine that the maid he pays missed.

Smith has been renting vacation homes on the VRBO website for more than a decade.

Jim Smith works his way through one of his rental properties.
Credit Paul Flahive

He remembered the first time he rented a house on the popular vacation home platform. It was a family visiting from Mexico.

"I was so proud that I finally had my very first family in my very first house,” he said.

But two hours later, he got a call from that family. It was December and there were high winds.

“A roof vent had blown off, and a skunk had climbed into the roof. And so that was a free customer,” he said, laughing.

Smith rents five properties. He takes this business very seriously. That's why when the city proposed an ordinance for Short-Term Rentals he worried it would be draconian.

When the Texas legislature failed to pass regulations around STRs, it left cities to figure out local ordinances themselves. San Antonio had convened a task force of neighborhood association members, STR operators and representatives from associated industries.

So, Smith joined the 26-person community task force analyzing the issue.

After more than six months of going line by line over a proposed ordinance, he changed his mind about the role the city should play.

"What's happened is that there's so many that are doing this, and the people that are not paying hotel tax that it creates a huge disparity," Smith said.

Because many aren't paying the more than 16 percent hotel occupancy taxes, Smith believes people are undercutting him on price.

He pointed to the underground pool in the backyard.

“This is a really nice house,” he said. But he isn’t getting what he used to for it on the platforms.

As a result, he is more receptive to the proposed STR registry, and signage that identifies homes being rented with owner contacts. Less serious operators could drop out.

While it was a pocketbook consideration for operators like Smith, neighborhoods worry about how short-term rentals will impact everything from housing costs to street parking.

Rob Killen is a land use attorney.
Credit Paul Flahive

"It has increased the tension between neighborhoods and folks not from the neighborhood," said Rob Killen, a land-use attorney, who also sits on the task force.

The potential that Airbnb and other home rental platforms have unlocked for homeowners and investors is explosive, Killen said. In his work and on the task force, he has heard concern about investors purchasing up whole homes and becoming absentee landlords.

"It's a big concern," said Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard.

People in his neighborhood are more open to people renting out rooms in properties they live at, but whole house rentals upset many in Dignowity.

Brian Dillard is president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association
Credit Paul Flahive

"You break the fabric of the neighborhood. We want residents. I want long-term residents here.  That's the whole purpose of a neighborhood is you have neighbors," Dillard continued.

Dignowity is a transitioning, low-income neighborhood. He was sitting outside a coffee shop that two years ago had been an empty storefront. It's a neighborhood where there are half a million dollar homes, and also gang- and drug-related shootings.

“I have a tech company coming right across the street,” Dillard said, highlighting the changing neighborhood.

With the influx of money, young couples and developers, Dillard believed that fears of an investor-owned Airbnb takeover are overblown. His neighbors were still worried, though.

Like a lot of neighborhoods near downtown, the debate over Airbnb in dignowity is wrapped up in conversations around affordable housing, newcomers and higher taxes, Dillard said.

Laura Spanjian with Airbnb wrote in a statement that most of the rentals on its platform are by people living on the property, and the company is glad the task force is looking at the issue.

"The majority of San Antonio Airbnb hosts are sharing the homes in which they live to help make ends meet," she said. "We are glad the City of San Antonio took the time to gather feedback from all stakeholders, including our host community.

"We are currently reviewing the ordinance and remain committed to working with the city on fair, common sense regulations that allow families to share their homes, strengthen the community and protect neighborhoods."

San Antonio Development Services head Michael Shannon said, throughout the country, people are trying to figure out: "How it is affecting neighborhoods in general. Is it hurting or harming significantly the character of a traditional neighborhood," he said.

Shannon said everyone on the task force is concerned with maintaining a neighborhood’s integrity, and the city wants to keep short-term rentals.

To address concern over investor-owned properties, the task force continues to consider density requirements, and potentially rezoning or special permitting.

At a recent meeting, city staff said they want a task force recommendation before Thanksgiving. After that, the city has several steps, including a subcommittee before a city council vote.

MORE | Read the latest proposed ordinance

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