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Charleston’s Short-Term Rental Task Force begins to feel the pressure as deadline looms

Short Term, Long Sentence

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Toward the end of a marathon session of Charleston's Short-Term Rental Task Force, their sixth such meeting this year, it dawned on the group that they might not be able to meet their September deadline.

Tasked with presenting the Planning Commission with a clear set of recommendations to govern short-term rentals across the city, the true challenge of uniting Charleston under a single set of rules had become all too apparent. With 10 of the task force's 18 members present by the end of the Aug. 8 meeting, City Planner Jacob Lindsey told the group that they should be wary of becoming the students in class who go to the teacher begging for another extension on a past-due assignment.

"When has a group of inmates asked for an increase in their sentence?" said task force member Daniel Ravenel, offering a metaphor more in line with the group's feelings at the time.

Entering into the meeting, the task force had already reached some form of consensus on several guidelines related to who and who should not be able to open their doors to renters. Currently guidelines limit short-term rentals to a portion of commercially zoned properties in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood, but that hasn't stopped illegal rentals from springing up all across the city.

The early points of agreement would require all short-term rental operators to apply for a business license, renewable annually based on the "good standing" of the property owner and the rental property. Operators would also be required to obtain a short-term rental permit from the city based on their ability to meet the other standards based on recommendations from the task force. But nailing down the specifics of those rules has proven challenging.

One early point of contention whether or not the owner of a property is required to be in their home while it is being rented. The task force had already agreed that short-term rental properties must be owner-occupied and listed as the operator's primary residence on their taxes, but should these people be allowed to rent out their entire property if they decide to leave town for the week?

"When we have heard complaints from the public about these STRs, it's invariably when there is no owner on site. That's when the big parties happen. That's when bad things happen," said Christopher Cody of the Historic Charleston Foundation, whose point was soon countered by fellow task force member Gabe Joseph.

"This is how a lot of people who might have limited means are able to travel a little more," said Joseph, a real estate attorney.

Adding to the list of meetings proposed for the task force, Cody requested that the task force schedule a time during which they can speak with lobbyists from short-term rental groups, as well as representatives from other cities that have already solidified their regulations governing short-term rentals. In terms of requiring owners to be on the premises while renting their properties to short-term guests, other cities being considered have taken varied approaches.

Ten of the Short-Term Rental Task Force's 18 members gathered for a special meeting on Aug. 8, 2017 - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • Ten of the Short-Term Rental Task Force's 18 members gathered for a special meeting on Aug. 8, 2017
Asheville, N.C., for example, has a "homestay" policy that allows owners to rent out one or two guest rooms, provided the owner is around during the entirety of their guests' stay. New Orleans has divided up the city's policies into multiple categories, each of which set up different requirements for short-term rentals that take up an entire property or just one room. In the case that single bedrooms are rented, owners are expected to be on hand, whereas full property rentals, understandably, don't require the owner to hang around.

As for Charleston, six of the 10 task force members present for the Aug. 8 discussion stated that they opposed allowing owners to rent out their entire homes while away from the property, although several spoke in favor of allowing a designated agent to manage the property in the owner's absence. Those who fell on the other side of the debate pointed to a sincere lack of trust on the part of task force members.

"In the past year, my family of four, we've probably rented seven or eight whole homes as we travelled, and I'd like to think that we've been nothing but respectful and polite of the home, the neighbors, and the property. I feel like we are all leading with our fear that these people are just going to be the bane of the neighborhood's existence and they are just going to tear it apart. I don't think that's really the case at all," said Renee Singletary, CEO of marketing firm iSupport. "Of course, not everybody travelling is going to be a family. You've got some partygoers, but I think we need to think that most of the people visiting and renting out a whole home are going to be responsible people who are going to enjoy our city."

Recognizing what task force members referred to as a "fracture" among the group, Singletary asked if the city has any evidence of continued trouble with short-term guests renting out rooms where the owner is not required to keep watch during their visit. According to city zoning administrator Lee Batchelder, the city's bed and breakfast guidelines are silent on whether owners need to be on the premises during rentals, and he is not aware of any reported problems occurring at bed and breakfasts when the owner is not present.

The task force has begun to consider using the bed and breakfast rules currently on the books as a sort of template for what may become Charleston's short-term rental guidelines. Bed and breakfast licensing rules require rental properties to be the primary residence of the owner, and the rented buildings must predate 1860 if operating in the city's Old and Historic District. Outside of the Old and Historic District, up to 10 rental units are allowed per property and the age requirement on the building is set at 50 years, unless owners are able to provide additional parking based on the number of units.

Also before the task force are questions of parking requirements and the maximum number of allowed renters at any given time. But before those issues can be determined, the group must answer a key question: What constitutes a rental unit? Is it one bedroom, an entire building, and where do Charleston's carriage houses fit into the equation? The city has an official designation of a dwelling unit, but will that carry over into the short-term rental policy?

Under current city standards, a dwelling unit is defined as one or more rooms arranged for one or more individuals as a single housekeeping unit, with cooking, living, sanitary, and sleeping facilities. According to Batchelder, the presence of a stove is the key characteristic that the city uses to identify a dwelling unit when reviewing building permit plans.

As the task force continued to debate what constitutes a short-term rental unit and how that should affect parking requirements and the maximum number of renters, the group began to drift away from the idea that a single set of requirements could be applied to the entire city. Attempts to craft a unified plan always seemed to hit one exception — Charleston's Historic District. Now it seems that whatever set of proposals the task force sets forth, the city will still need to shape the proposed rules to the specific neighborhood in which they are applied. But as one task force member stated, this must be done without turning Charleston residents against one of the area's main economic drivers.

"The general gist of the paradox of tourism is your success can lead to your own failure. And we're starting to see that in Charleston. I will argue in my professional capacity that short-term rentals are the No. 1 issue in this city related to tourism because of what's happening in terms of its uncontrolled growth," said Wayne Smith, chair of the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the College of Charleston. "The hotels have limits. I know lots of people argue one way or another what the limits should be, but there are specific limits. They have to apply. Having this Wild West situation in terms of rentals is really hurting the city from a tourism quality perspective ... There's a lot of pressure on this city."


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