Asheville ‘Airbnb’ battle nears $1M in fines
Property owner defies laws that say short-term vacation rentals illegal
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – In this top-destination tourist town, there’s a lot of money to be made renting a house or apartment to weekend visitors.
Except it’s illegal in almost all cases. And doing it can mean big fines, according to stringent city rules passed three years ago in response to concerns over neighborhood disruption and exacerbation of Asheville’s housing shortage.
It’s a fight playing out across America as housing advocates and city leaders try to balance the popularity of short-term rental platforms — which have allowed millions of property owners to find new side incomes — against the needs of permanent residents facing a dwindling supply of affordability housing.
In Asheville, most property owners caught running a short-term vacation rental, known in common parlance as an “Airbnb,” stop before the $500-aday fine is imposed, officials say. Reid Thompson isn’t one of those. As of May 10, Thompson had racked up $850,000 in fines. That’s according to a March 22, 2017, legal complaint from the city plus daily accruals calculated by The Citizen Times for his three rentals in the Five Points neighborhood just north of downtown.
Thompson said he ignored letters from the city, which he said disrupted his neighborhood and pushed him into the rental business by allowing a grocery store to turn his street into a commercial truck corridor.
“I guess my thinking is, ‘Yeah, that’s a huge risk.’ But I don’t think their fines are collectible, because I think they are outrageous and capricious,” he said.
The city, meanwhile, is suing Thompson to collect the money and make him stop the rentals, which Asheville’s rules make illegal in nearly every part of the city.
In the days before Asheville was a modern tourist mecca, few people cared if a neighboring house or apartment accommodated renters for a weekend or two.
Then three major things happened: Asheville blew up as a must-see travel destination, the city faced a housing crunch, and Airbnb and other online short-term rental platforms became big business. The result was a clash between would-be short-term rental owners and those who said the trend was turning neighborhoods into de facto hotel districts and making it hard for residents to afford housing.
The City Council has fallen on the side of tighter regulations with a ban on new short-term rentals in nearly all of Asheville, $500-a-day fines and aggressive enforcement. In one exception, property owners can appeal to the council for special zoning to allow the rentals. In another, people can do something called a homestay, renting out a couple of rooms provided the long-term resident is present.
With fines piling up, Thompson is looking for a different remedy: asking for a zoning change that allows rentals.
“I guess my thinking is, ‘Yeah, that’s a huge risk.’ But I don’t think their fines are collectible, because I think they are outrageous and capricious.”