Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
A City Council committee on Thursday considered a proposed ordinance for short-term rentals, but had more questions than opinions about the divisive document.
In light of the committee members' unfamiliarity with the topic, City staff recommended – and most Council members agreed – that it be discussed at a future meeting with the full Council before heading to a vote. This will also give Council members more time to talk to stakeholders and staff.
Short-term rentals are not regulated in San Antonio, but there are now thousands of people throughout the city who use platforms such as Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, and others to rent out spare rooms, apartments, and entire homes for less than 30-day periods.
Most neighborhood associations oppose short-term rentals, citing their "commercial use" as incongruent and disruptive in residential areas. But short-term rental operators say the platforms self-regulate so-called "bad actors," allow them to earn extra income, and enhance the city's options for visitors. Users cite affordable rates in residential areas as such platforms' perks.
Click here to download the draft ordinance.
Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez said staff will collect the committee's feedback and schedule an informative session with the Council in one or two months. The Zoning Commission is scheduled to review the proposed ordinance on Feb. 6.
"I might as well pack up my stuff and leave, see you guys in March. A lot of people came down here to at least debate the facts," Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) told his colleagues before leaving the meeting.
More than 20 residents spoke during the meeting, voicing concerns and hopes for the ordinance. The briefing constituted a waste of time, Brockhouse said, because Council members and attendees would have to return to discuss the issue again at a later date.
But the three other committee members in attendance Thursday – Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) – agreed to hear out the residents and discuss the proposal with their colleagues during a so-called B session. Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) is also on the committee, but was out of town Thursday.
"I am very grateful we have the opportunity to hear this in committee," Sandoval said. "I got a briefing one-on-one, and I would like to hear what my fellow Council members have to say."
Sandoval, who chairs the Community Health and Equity Committee, asked how the proposed short-term rentals rules differ from the City's current bed-and-breakfast ordinance, which some residents say should be strengthened and expanded in lieu of a new and broader ordinance.
"I really struggle with this because I started the week not caring about short-term rentals, and it's clearly important to a lot of people," Pelaez said.
Pelaez said he has not heard from his constituents about the issue. Given its complexity, he agreed more time is needed for discussion.
There are "a lot of discrepancies in the ordinance," Shaw said, especially pertaining to enforcement and property rights.
"How do you enforce an ordinance in regards to people's private property rights? That concerns me," he said. "It is better for us to get ahead of this rather than get behind or wait until it becomes a huge issue and we're trying to play clean-up."
Michael Shannon, director of the City's Development Services Department, highlighted key points in the proposed rules for the committee and attendees.
A 23-member task force, comprised of local stakeholders who met for more than one year, crafted a two-tiered system to regulate short-term rentals that has different rules for owner-occupied, or "hosted," and non-owner-occupied rental units.
The new rules would make it more difficult for "non-hosted" units to operate, as they would entail increased fees, proximity restrictions to other short-term rentals, and a special review process. This heightened level of scrutiny aims to preserve housing stock for longer-term residents, but existing non-hosted units would be grandfathered in.
“Any short-term rental that is already legally in existence would prove they are legal, such as paying their Hotel Occupancy Tax, that sort of thing,” Shannon told the Rivard Report later. "If [short-term rentals] are illegal and not doing what they’re supposed to do in meeting those rules, then they wouldn’t be grandfathered.”
Both established and new short-term rentals would be required to register with the City's Finance Department to pay the local Hotel Occupancy Tax. Most platforms, such as Airbnb, automatically pay state taxes.
Operators of both types of short-term rentals would have to pay a $200 registration fee, a $100 renewal fee, and a $51.50 re-inspection fee.
"The re-inspection fee would be only if you fail an inspection and we'd have to go back out," Shannon said. "What we'll do is give all short-term rentals a checklist in what we're looking for: a fire extinguisher, a working smoke alarm, everything that's in the ordinance. That way, you'll have an opportunity to know all that before we go onto the property."
Non-hosted operators would pay an additional $400 for the "special exemption" process that would require approval by a super majority from the Board of Adjustments.
The Board of Adjustment and Planning Commission approved the proposal earlier this month with an amendment that adds broad language to prevent short-term rentals from altering the "essential character" of areas in which short-term rental operators do not live, but rent out properties.
The permit application would require owners to submit paperwork detailing contact information, location, and site plans for parking – all would be required to have one off-street parking spot for visitors.
That's a point of contention for several operators, as many are located in neighborhoods with limited parking options – even for residents.
According to Shannon, members of the public have another chance to address the proposed ordinance in a meeting at 5 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Cliff Morton Development and Business Services Center, 1901 S. Alamo St.