En­force­ment of short-term rental or­di­nance urged

Coun­cil mem­ber seeks ac­tion af­ter res­i­dents com­plain of par­ties.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By James Bar­ra­gan jbar­ra­gan@states­man.com

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.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN STATES­MAN

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.

SHELBY TAUBER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

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.

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