Claire Haines file photo
Cannonborough-Elliottborough is home to Charleston's only legally allowed short-term rentals
With a slew of short-term rental properties already operating outside of Charleston’s currently established rules, a major point of concern for Charleston’s Short-Term Rental Task Force has been the issue of enforcement.
Tasked with crafting a set of recommendations that will serve as the basis for Charleston’s new short-term rental guidelines, the group always arrives at the same question — What do the rules matter if the city is unable to hold residents accountable? According to Lee Batchelder, Charleston’s zoning administrator, the task force’s concerns are valid.
“Speaking as a member of the staff, we don’t have the ability to truly enforce the laws that we have on the books today. The proliferation of this activity has gone way beyond our ability to deal with enforcement,” Batchelder told the task force Tuesday evening when asked if the city had reduced enforcement efforts over recent months. “We are responding to concerns and complaints that we receive and notifying the owners, if we find owners, of illegal short-term rentals that there’s an issue, that they shouldn’t be doing this, and trying to make information about what the current laws are accessible to people. Beyond that we’re really not able to prosecute cases in front of the Livability Court.”
Batchedler’s comments came after the task force had heard public comments from concerned citizens, falling on either side of the short-term rental debate, for more than an hour. But before local residents addressed the group, the task force listened to a brief presentation from Joseph Montano, government affairs manager with Expedia, which oversees popular rental platforms HomeAway and VRBO.
Montano spoke about the many economic benefits of short-term rentals, saying that more than 70 percent of those opening their homes to short-term rentals are able to cover more than half of their mortgages with the additional income. Several Charleston residents who addressed the task force supported this claim, arguing that renting out their spare rooms allowed them to weather tough financial times and maintain ownership of their homes. For these residents, the ability to rent their own property extends beyond just a money-making scheme. As many claimed, these rental options allow them to remain a part of Charleston as rising housing prices around the city have driven so many out.
The main point of contention during Montano’s presentation came when members of the task force asked if Expedia would share information on those who rent out their property and violate whatever city regulations are put into place. Montano told the task force that the company could provide aggregate data, such as the number of listings within the city, but he stopped short of agreeing to hand over the names and addresses of potential violators.
“We don’t like to be the code enforcement side,” said Montano, when asked if Expedia would help the city track down illegal renters. “I’m not sure what that would look like, but one thing we are willing to come to the table on ... is putting the business license on the website to help the city enforce it’s own regulations.”
Following Montano’s comments and after hearing the public weigh in on short-term rentals, Historic Charleston Foundation representative and task force member Chris Cody called for a vote on a recommendation to city officials he had crafted on the spot.
“There is one issue that we have heard about repeatedly from small-business owners and from the citizens of this city that I think is very clear. And that is the enforcement of our current laws or the lack thereof,” said Cody.
Gaining a majority vote from the task force, Cody’s official recommendation to the Charleston’s Planning Commission and City Council calls on the city to undertake “emergency enforcement measures and allocate necessary resources” to address illegal short-term rentals.
In the final minutes of Tuesday’s meeting, the task force also cemented their stance on just how expansive Charleston’s new short-term rental rules should be. Having heard from multiple residents from the city’s historic district opposing the proliferation of short-term rentals in their neighborhoods, the task force approved three major points outlining who will be affected by the soon-to-be proposed regulations.
The group asks that all short-term rental properties currently operating legally in Cannonborough-Elliotborough be grandfathered into whatever new ordinance is drafted and allowed to operate under the current regulations. As a part of this final vote, the task force confirmed their recommendation that neighborhoods in the city’s Old and Historic District, extending across the southern tip of the peninsula, should be regulated differently than the rest of the city, and other neighborhoods will be allowed to opt into this designation.