Members of the Short-Term Rental Task Force (left) chat with Charleston's Planning Commission (right)
In what must have felt like watching your child take its first steps only to tumble down an open manhole, Charleston's Short-Term Rental Task Force was met by a questioning Planning Commission and a harsh public critical of the group's proposed rental regulations.
Since November of last year, task force members selected by Mayor John Tecklenburg and Charleston City Council have met 11 times to debate how best to govern short-term rentals while expanding the area for legal rentals throughout the city. In late September, task force members voted on a final set of recommendations. STR operators would need a business license and permit from the city. They must be the primary owner of the residence and remain on the premises while renters are in their home. All homes must be at least 50 years old, and for the Old and Historic District homes must first be individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After almost a year of discussion, task force members hugged and eagerly bid each other farewell like a gang of castaway met with rescue. That was until Thursday night's meeting.
Seated in a row before the Planning Commission, the task force was called to answer for every decision they had made since the start of the year. Filling the rows of seats behind them, lining the walls, and spilling over into a small adjacent room were dozens of residents from all across the city, all united by the simple fact that they had plenty to say about the recommended set of regulations. Most of it was not favorable. But first, City Planner Jacob Lindsey opened with a brief presentation that provided perspective on what Charleston faces with the boom of short-term rentals.
"It is something that hasn't existed before the past 20 years, and we're different from all the cities that are grappling with it," Lindsey said of internet-enabled short-term rentals, which he compared to major innovations like the introduction of the traffic light. "However, we are still a city of 135,000 people that supports five-and-a-quarter million visitors every year. That hasn't changed. Our rules that govern short-term rentals aren't really up to the task. On a fundamental level, they date back to 1931. A lot has changed since then."
Specific to the 1931 zoning ordinance that Lindsey referenced is the current requirement that bed and breakfasts in the Old and Historic District be built before 1860. At that time, the new regulations applied to homes that were 71 years old. Presently, as has been suggested by the STR Task Force, the 1860 cutoff is legally indefensible, which led to the new recommendation of a 50-year age requirement for all short-term rental homes. The task force's intention was that and age requirement would serve as another safeguard against far-off investors building a property in Charleston for the sole purpose of renting it out short term.
As task force members informed the Planning Commission, the 50-year mark is based on a federally designated age for a historic home. The Planning Commission responded by asking why an age requirements was even necessary if STR operators could only rent out their primary residence and must remain in their homes while guests are present.
"I don't think you can restrict people because other people have done horrible things. That's why you have a police department. I would call the police if my neighbor rented out their house and it was a nuisance," said Planning Commission member Terry Seabrook, who said she'd be renting an Airbnb the following day.
Available rentals in the designated short-term rental area downtown on an upcoming weekend
Chris Fraser later followed up his fellow Planning Commission members' concerns regarding the 50-year requirement on homes by pointing out that younger portions of the city would be excluded from the short-term rental market. While Lindsey said that rules among home-owners associations on Daniel Island would restrict any short-term rentals, there still remains pockets of West Ashley, James Island, and Johns Island that would be excluded under the proposed short-term rental guidelines — a concern that was thoroughly addressed during the hour-long public comment period of Thursday's meeting.
"The law didn't have room for us," said Rashaunda Grant, who inherited a James Island home from her grandparents and has felt excluded under the current regulations and those under consideration by the Planning Commission.
Several neighborhood representatives south of Broad Street spoke in favor of the proposed regulations that would further curtail new short-term rentals in that portion of the city, while Cannonborough-Elliottborough residents were met with the news that the new rules wouldn't extend to the commercial portion of the neighborhood where short-term rentals are currently allowed. A majority of speakers during Thursday's meeting fell outside of those areas.
"The vast majority of hosts in Charleston are people like me. We are middle class, local families. I don't know what boogie man you're talking about, but this is what we look like," said Cedric Hodgeman, an Airbnb operator on James Island, who was asked to address his comments to the Planning Commission rather than the STR Task Force who quietly looked on.
Thursday's meeting concluded with a deferral from the Planning Commission who were unwilling to make a formal decision on a set of recommendations — almost a year in the making — that they had considered for three hours. The Planning Commission will resume the topic Oct. 18 before sending a recommendation to City Council, but it seems the discussion between the commission and members of the task force will continue in the coming days.
"I don't understand why we've never interacted with them, and they've been working on this for a year. Then they bring this information to us. We listen to it for three hours, and we're supposed to make a decision," Seabrook said of the STR Task Force. "I have a lot of opinions. I don't really agree with what they've done, but that doesn't mean we should give them the short shrift and decide in three hours that everything they've done in a year is not valid."