Enforcement of short-term rental ordinance urged
Council member seeks action after residents complain of parties.
The Splash the Runway Party during the 2013 South by Southwest Festival had it all: a pool, free shots before 1 p.m. and a bikini fashion show.
It also featured performances from up-and-coming hip- hop artists in town for the popular music festival.
The only problem was that the “party mansion” in northwestern Travis County where the party was taking place wasn’t permitted to host the event because it violated Austin’s short-term rental ordinance, among other city rules.
George Drenner, the home’s owner, said he was out of town and unaware the people he
rented to would be throwing the event at the home. When he found out, Drenner said, he shut the party down immediately, and everyone was out by 7:30 p.m.
But over the next two years, the city would contact Drenner multiple times regarding complaints from neighbors that his home was being used for prohibited concerts, parties and weddings.
Drenner said that after learning his property, which is outside city limits, fell under the ordinance’s jurisdiction, he attained a short-term rental license and has tried to comply. But, he added, getting answers from the city has been tough.
“The problem we were having is trying to figure out what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed,” Drenner said. “We wanted to abide by restrictions, but the restrictions were vague and unclear.”
Drenner’s house isn’t currently being rented because of a house fire, but the case is an example of the difficulties in enforcing the city’s shortterm rental ordinance, which has come under criticism in recent weeks after Council Member Sherri Gallo proposed a resolution instructing the city manager to investigate problems with its enforcement.
The resolution asked city staffers to determine whether the Code Department lacked necessary resources to enforce the rules or if the ordinance needed to include tighter regulations.
The answer, according to residents affected by problematic short-term rentals and city code officials, is both. For example, there are only two Code Department staffers tasked with monitoring violations for the more than 1,000 registered short-term rental properties in the city.
“The STR ordinance has no teeth, and it’s not enforceable,” said Hank Lydick, president of the property owner’s association at Greenshores on Lake Austin, near Drenner’s short-term rental.
In the two and a half years since the ordinance went into effect, it has been lauded as a national model by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But in Austin, residents say it has turned their neighborhoods into commercial party zones that attract alcohol and loud music. Some residents said they have woken up in the middle of the night to find revelers at short-term rentals urinating outdoors. Others said they have felt threatened after asking renters to turn down their music.
“I bought into this neighborhood 20 years ago thinking it was a residential neighborhood,” said Kristen Hotopp, an East Austin resident who lives near a short-term rental that has multiple recorded ordinance violations. “I’m furious that my block has been turned into a commercial area.”
Code Department officials say their hands are tied when it comes to some enforcement rules and add that they need more staffers to better monitor violations at peak infraction times.
On Tuesday, the department moved to provide relief in that area, announcing that it would launch a pilot program this weekend to monitor problematic short-term rentals during the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when many of the complaints come in.
Currently, the city doesn’t issue penalties for operating without a shortterm rental license, which costs $285 to acquire and $235 to renew annually. The city assesses penalties to properties in violation of the ordinance, but those violations have to be proven in a municipal court, a drawn-out and difficult process.
Often, the people who stay in problematic shortterm rentals are from out of state and are only in town for a few days. Proving a violation requires flying them in for the hearing, making the cases very expensive and difficult to win, so they are regularly not pursued.
The Code Department has handed out only one fine for violating the ordi- nance in the two and a half years it has existed.
In that case, code officials said, residents secretly rented a nearby problematic shortterm rental and called the department themselves so it could document the intentional overoccupancy, which they believed to be a common occurrence.
City officials acknowledge shortcomings in the ordinance and the need for tougher enforcement.
“The short-term rental program we have in this city is a good program, but we need to make sure the rules are enforced,” Mayor Steve Adler has said.
He said a majority of short-term rental property owners complied with the ordinance but “a few bad apples” were taking advantage of the rules.
To deal with those bad actors, the Code Department is considering moving ordinance violations from municipal courts to administrative hearings, where the charges would move from criminal to civil proceedings, expediting the process.
It is also considering adding penalties for operating without a license and adding inspection requirements, which were dropped from the ordinance after industry pressure, Carl Smart, the department’s director, said at a city meeting.
In Hotopp’s Garden Street neighborhood, residents organized in October when 1210 Garden Street LP, a limited partnership, bought a home in the area and began renting it out on such sites as AirBnB and VRBO, attracting crowds to the three-bedroom home, which it said could sleep up to 20 people. The ordinance says no more than six unrelated people can stay at a short-term rental.
In February, after several neighborhood complaints, Code Department officials found the property in violation of the ordinance when renters told the city there were 13 people staying in the home, according to public records.
Two weeks later, the property’s license was suspended because an online advertisement for the rental was in violation of the ordinance, according to public records.
However, the license — one of only two that have been suspended since the ordinance went into effect — was reinstated the same day, after the infraction was brought to the owners’ attention. In June, the property was issued another notice of violation, for a separate advertising information infraction.
“The way 1210 Garden Street LP conducts business is hand in hand with city code. The partnership communicates with them all the time and does whatever it takes to be in line with the ordinance,” said Jason Martin, a limited partner in the property. “Through continued education with city code, after the owner received a violation, they remedied any type of situation thereafter.”
Despite multiple violations, the Garden Street property hasn’t been fined and its license remains intact.
Neighbors have decried that case as an example of the city’s weak enforcement practices in the renewed debate over short-term rentals.
“They tout this as a national model; that is a joke,” Hotopp said.
Guy Deuel (from left), Tracy Smith and Buddy Bayer, all residents of Garden Street, on Wednesday stand outside of what they say is a party house.
A proposal by City Council Member Sherri Gallo to review the short-term rental ordinance has sparked conversations about the budding industry. The resolution asked city staffers to determine whether the Code Department lacked necessary resources to enforce the rules or if the ordinance needed tighter regulations.