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Friday June 2nd

Extra income or a neighborhood nuisance? How Chapel Hill grapples with Airbnbs

Celie Richardson, lawyer for local condominium owner Eric Plow, stands in front of Plow's property on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. "We are very perplexed as to why the town is trying to place regulations that would shut this complex down; we hope they don't," Richardson said.
Buy Photos Celie Richardson, lawyer for local condominium owner Eric Plow, stands in front of Plow's property on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. "We are very perplexed as to why the town is trying to place regulations that would shut this complex down; we hope they don't," Richardson said.

Raleigh, Seattle, Berkeley and Kansas City are now all regulating Airbnbs — and Chapel Hill may be joining them.

Chapel Hill’s Short-Term Rental Task Force, which was created in September, will provide recommendations to the Chapel Hill Town Council that could place Chapel Hill among a growing number of cities that are regulating short-term rentals.

The task force will be focused on dedicated whole-home short-term rentals. These are units used specifically for short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, and do not have a primary resident. Anya Grahn, senior planner for the Town of Chapel Hill, explained during her introductory presentation at the Nov. 6 meeting of the task force that they would not be looking into regulations on short-term rentals for one room or houses with a primary resident. 

Grahn said there were 322 active short-term rentals listed as being in Chapel Hill during October, and 85 percent of those were on Airbnb. Grahn said about a third of these rentals were for private rooms, but the rest were for the entire home.

What is the problem?

The wave of regulations enacted by cities against short-term rental sites has been met with both criticism and support. A survey conducted last month of 116 property owners and residents in Chapel Hill reported that they experienced difficulties with noise, limited parking and strangers in the neighborhood due to short-term rentals.

However, Grahn said these sorts of complaints are not a widespread problem. She said Chapel Hill had only received three formal complaints since 2018.

“The task force will not be addressing noise, parking or garbage,” Grahn said in an email. “They will be considering other topics such as occupancy caps, registration requirements, health and safety considerations and similar topics.”

Grahn said there were various other concerns expressed to the complaints staff. She explained that many are worried these rentals are a commercial use that has expanded into their residential neighborhood. Along with worries that investors will destroy residential communities, Grahn said others were concerned some absentee landlords would allow the properties to deteriorate.

There were also members of the community who either attended the Nov. 6 meeting or wrote public statements to the task force to stress the positive aspects of short-term rentals. Celie Richardson is an attorney representing Eric Plow, an owner of a condominium in Chapel Hill. She said Plow has rented his units out as short-term rentals for around 20 years “with no problem.”

Richardson said Plow had been doing this since before Airbnb was established, but he now uses the site because of the wide platform that it provides. She said he often rents to people that are visiting the UNC campus for a variety of reasons, such as conferences, graduations or visiting family in the hospital.

Citing a handout that was provided at the meeting, which showed that short-term rentals charged less than hotels, Richardson said she felt the desire to protect local hotels is the reason for the push in regulation.

“That is a market issue,” Richardson said. “That is not something that the Town should be involved in legislating.”

Anne Brubaker, a new part-time resident of Chapel Hill, wrote in a statement to the task force that she and her husband purchased their “last home” in July 2018, and they have plans to live in Chapel Hill permanently. She said due to their commitments in San Francisco, the couple is not able to immediately move, and they have found that the short-term rental platform allows them the ability to transition in an affordable way.

“Any new Chapel Hill regulations will affect not only those property owners who use the STR system for profit, but also residents like us for whom the system simply makes it possible to plan for the future,” Brubaker said in the statement.

What are others doing?

Chapel Hill would not be the first city in the Triangle to regulate short-term rentals. Raleigh initially banned short-term rentals a few years ago, but the City Council voted in May to allow people to rent out rooms with certain restrictions.

Stefanie Mendell, a Raleigh City Council member, said affordable housing was the main reason Raleigh decided to ban people from renting out whole homes.

“We’ve seen in other communities, businesses come in and buy up lots of houses and start renting them out on Airbnb,” Mendell said. “That means that those houses are no longer available for residents of the community to actually buy and live in.”

The task force is striving to understand how other communities have dealt with short-term rentals.

Rebecca Badgett, local government legal educator in the UNC School of Government, presented information regarding regulations in a number of cities, including Wilmington, to the task force. Her presentation showed dedicated short-term rentals had been regulated in various ways: prohibited, allowed in mixed-use and commercial zones and allowed in residential zones with possible restrictions.

Mai Nguyen, associate professor at UNC who studies housing and community development, wrote a report regarding short-rentals for the city of Asheville in 2014. Nguyen said one piece of advice that she would give to Chapel Hill, and all cities, is to make short-term rental owners register their units as a business. She said by doing this, cities would be able to track short-term rentals and create better policies and ordinances specific to that city.

“There is no one size fits all,” Nguyen said. “I think that the ability to craft good policy depends on the data and information that we have on short-term rentals.”

The task force is set to report their recent findings to the Town Council on Nov. 18.


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