Asheville ‘Airbnb’ bat­tle nears $1M in fines

Prop­erty owner de­fies laws that say short-term va­ca­tion rentals il­le­gal

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - MONEY - Joel Burgess

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.”

Reid Thomp­son

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