Opinion

OPINION | GREG HARTON: Tensions grow between local housing needs, short-term rental demand

From Atlanta to Burlington, Vt., from Oahu, Hawaii, to Portland, Maine, getting into the business of renting properties for short-term, hotel-like stays is getting more difficult.

Once upon a time, hotels and motels made up the lodging of choice for travelers, largely because there weren't many other choices beyond friends and family. As with everything else, the internet brought major changes.

In recent years, almost anyone with a property could become a short-term inn keeper, largely because the work necessary to market one's property to out-of-towners has never been simpler or less expensive. Services like Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) give anyone with a place to spend the night -- from an apartment to a full-size house -- an avenue to attract renters for stays as short as one evening.

My family has used these services for visits to Colorado, Naples, Rome and Florida. When you're staying someplace for a few days, these kinds of short-term rentals can offer space more comfortable than a hotel room and often more conveniently located to the amenities people want. In our case, it was a ski resort, a train station, the Vatican and the beach, respectively.

This short-term rental industry delivers a variety of lodging options for adventurous travelers. The perspective can change dramatically, though, when these rentals are in your own hometown, perhaps just next door. A constant flow of tourists, some courteous and quiet and others rowdy and insensitive, can be disruptive in places not originally intended for temporary lodging.

In New Orleans, residents pressing city leaders for restrictions on short-term rentals held signs advocating "Homes for teachers, not for tourists," and "Homes for families, not for frat boy weekends." Last spring, the City Council there limited short-term rentals to one per square block in residential areas, with some exceptions.

The conversion of residential quarters to visitor lodging can be viewed as welcome economic activity. Tourists tend to spend money, after all. But what about places with tight housing markets for local residents? Losing long-term rentals or homes for sale to the short-term rental market intensifies housing shortages, driving up the cost for what remains. The economic ripples can grow into tsunami-like waves for people struggling to keep roofs over their heads.

Fayetteville is among the Arkansas communities that have attempted to balance the desires of owners eager to capitalize on their properties against local residents' need for long-term housing. In July, the Fayetteville City Council set a maximum of permitting 475 short-term rental units within the city limits. The limit applies to units where the owner does not live on the same property.

As of a few days ago, the city said it was nearing that maximum, meaning any property owners above that limit who want to operate short-term rental units will be placed on a wait list, denied that opportunity until a slot opens up.

So the city is going to start saying "no" to people. In a state that often favors property rights, will this be when the litigation starts?

What's magic about 475? Nothing, really. It's just a judgment call. It remains an open question whether a judge would agree the city has the authority to make that judgment or whether it's fair.

State lawmakers have tried before, and will again, to curtail cities' authority to place use limits on private property. In a state that eschews legal protections for long-term renters, would it surprise anyone if legislators fell on the side of protecting property rights, despite concerns by other property owners about the impact short-term rentals have on neighbors?

The new year may be the one where a lot of this shakes out in the political process.

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