King William’s Latest Fight: The Spread of Short-Term Rentals

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Children play in front of a home in the King William neighborhood. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Children play in front of a home in the King William neighborhood.

When City Council takes up the first substantive item on its agenda Thursday, you can be sure my neighbors will be present and accounted for. King William has a long history of what you might call aggressive civic participation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, neighborhood women stopped first a freeway, then a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers river project, both of which would have split the neighborhood.

In the late 1970s, the San Antonio Independent School District planned to fill four adjacent blocks with a huge food processing and distribution center. The King William Association got a grant from the Bexar County Historical Commission for an archaeological study, which led to the discovery of an ancient acequia. So we got a park and offices for the San Antonio Housing Authority, which swapped land with the school district for a more appropriate site elsewhere.

Later, the neighborhood association successfully took on the San Antonio Children’s Shelter, which was located on an otherwise residential street. The issue was not the children, but the adult who ran it. We understood that he couldn’t help that children whose parents were arrested for a variety of crimes were delivered to the shelter at all hours. But we did feel that he could, for example, arrange for the huge commercial trash collection trucks to perform their window-rattling job some time after dawn. Nor did two houses need to be razed for administrative offices.

And we got the City to ban the tour buses that rumbled noisily through the neighborhood. Some parked with their diesel engines running in front of homes to maintain air conditioning as passengers dismounted to inspect local sites. Some drivers were, to our amusement, inventive in the stories they would tell over loudspeakers. At least one announced that heiress Sandra West is buried in the side yard of her lovely former home in the 400 block of King William Street – sitting in the front seat of her Ferrari. It’s not true, of course. She’s buried in her Ferrari at an historic East Side cemetery.

Through these decades, King William has transitioned, which is to say slowly gentrified. What had been a decaying neighborhood in which modest cottages were sprinkled among once-grand mansions cut up into cheap apartments is now a vibrant neighborhood of once-again grand mansions and stylish renovated cottages. It remains a neighborhood with a wide range of incomes, but the range has moved up from Section 8-to-wealthy to middle-class-to-really wealthy.

It has also become a neighborhood of restaurants ranging from inexpensive Tex-Mex to pricey high cuisine, as well as art galleries and fancy popsicle emporiums. As a result, fights once necessitated by the fact that the neighborhood was viewed as disposable are now necessitated by the fact that it is viewed as precious.

So what is the fight for which my neighbors will gird at Thursday’s City Council meeting? It’s over short-term rentals – Airbnb, HomeAway, and similar platforms. One of the first items on the agenda is to pass an ordinance to regulate STRs that has been in the works for more than a year.

In the past few years, King William and the adjacent Lavaca neighborhood have seen short-term rentals quietly but aggressively infiltrate our housing stock. And with our location within an easy stroll to the River Walk, the Henry B. González Convention Center, the heart of downtown, and Hemisfair, we feel we are in danger of an explosion of STRs.

Some are in carriage houses owned by longtime residents who can well use the extra income to pay the increased taxes that have accompanied sharply rising home values.

Others are in the neighborhood’s many smaller houses, which have been protected from destruction by the strict regulations of a historic district. These are not occupied, but are rented out, often by owners who don’t live in the neighborhood. Many have realtor-style lock boxes, so the customers never even meet the owners.

They are, pure and simple, businesses. That doesn’t make the businessmen and women who own them evil. But it does make their interests as much contrary to the neighborhood’s as would any other business that took over the houses.

To understand the reason, ask yourself what makes a good neighborhood? The answer is simple. It is neighbors.

Very few of us choose to live in houses surrounded by commercial buildings. We choose to be surrounded by neighbors. Most, if not all, become friends. We can socialize with them, borrow a cup of sugar from them, keep our eyes out for them when they travel, and fight city hall with them.

In King William, renters are an important part of the neighborhood. It is how young people enter and become part of the community. My wife and I both moved in as renters in the early 1980s, before we knew each other and before we could afford to buy a home.

But now, at a time when San Antonio’s housing stock is lagging its growth, many of the small rental houses are becoming non-owner-occupied STRs. The economics are inescapable.

These are some of the reasons that the King William Association board, after hearing from neighbors, voted to oppose the City’s sanctioning of any non-owner-occupied STRs in our neighborhood. It was a consensus, but not a unanimous consensus. (Some have argued that regulations are an infringement of property rights. I have little patience for the argument. What has made King William so attractive to those who would monetize it is precisely that those of us who have bought homes here did so with the understanding that we would follow the historic district’s restrictions on our property rights – not the least of these is that we cannot tear down the small houses that are being bought up for STRs.)

The ordinance City staff is presenting to City Council divides STRs into two types. Type 1 is owner-occupied. Type 2 is not. There are few restrictions on Type 1, but the ordinance would limit the density of Type 2 units.

The summary sheet presented by the staff says no more than 12.5 percent of a “block face” could be made up of Type 2 units. In other words, on each side of the block only one of eight houses could be Type 2 short-term rentals. Read literally, any block that has fewer than eight houses on it can have no Type 2 unit.

It’s a compromise, but these days Washington reminds us almost daily of the limitations of government without compromise.

About 25 years ago, our neighborhood went through extended and intense negotiations over a very similar issue: the regulation of bed-and-breakfasts. We agreed to similar density rules. But these rules often were not enforced. Many of the B&Bs did not last, and others are now listed with online services such as Airbnb.

Because of the online services, the new short-term rentals appear more of a threat than the old-style B&Bs turned out to be. If so, this compromise will only serve if the new regulations are enforced.

Otherwise, we’ll have to man the barricades once again – even if weakened by having fewer neighbors and more moneyed interests lined up against us.

22 thoughts on “King William’s Latest Fight: The Spread of Short-Term Rentals

  1. I think that there are very real differences between a neighbor who lives in their house renting out an extra bedroom, someone who buys a house to rent out long term, and someone who buys a house to rent out short term.

    I think that non owner occupied short term rentals should not be allowed in any neighborhood in the city.

  2. Nice summary Rick and well presented. We are not a neighborhood of “no” to any progressive move by COSA, but will stand our ground when we feel our historic ambiance and neighborhood quality of life are threatened.

  3. What an astute description of my beloved former community.Thanks for your historical tour and a fine definition of the term neighborhood Rick.

  4. Thank you, Rick, for a thoughtful summary of King William’s history. As Harry mentioned, King William has often been mislabeled as the neighborhood of “no,” even though we stand for many powerful “firsts”: first residential historic district in Texas, first neighborhood nonprofit in San Antonio, first Fiesta event to implement recycling and to give away children’s books. We cannot sustain a residential neighborhood when entire blocks of houses have been given over to commercial enterprises, ending their lives as historic homes.

  5. What nonsense. We are a neighborhood of no. And your touchy-feely sense that we care about each other and need to give up any rights for this neighborhood is misguided.

    In King William, people bang on the windows of buses to harass them – even school buses – and limousines even when they have a legitimate right to be here. It’s embarrassing, it’s nasty and rude, and it’s what happens here. The message is to get out, we don’t want you here.

    Oh yes, what about the neighbors that make up this “nice neighborhood?” If I’d ask to borrow a cup of sugar I’d probably be facing a gun. There are ugly, horrid neighbors, and I happen to have several, but no, I can’t pick them, and no they don’t make a great neighborhood for me. That is their right, and they can live anywhere they choose.

    Just like I don’t give up any property rights when I bought my King William home. I can do with it what I will. If I need to do anything to the outside of it, well, that’s where historic restrictions take over, but I never gave up any other rights. So when someone wants to rent out their home (a definition based on zoning), or back house, for 1 night, for 29 nights (both short term), for 31 nights, or six months (long term), it’s a part of the rights that I get as any Texas property owner. Limiting that in any neighborhood is illegal. And, wait 5 minutes until this ordinance passes. It will be challenged in the courts as others in Texas have. Telling one neighbor that he’s grandfathered and that another can’t do what he wants with his property is illegal.

    In an historic neighborhood, I also don’t get a “viewshed,” or any other NIMBY rights either. We can fight unwanted commercial ventures, sure. That’s not because they are not legal. It’s because the people who live here say they want something better, they say no.

    The few voices who always say no have soiled and diminished the voice of King William with the city. They are rude to our councilman, they are rude to me and to each other, and they only speak for their snooty, selfish selves.

    If you want to really fight a proper battle, fight to get the definition of Type 2 STR declared a commercial venture. Oh, no, wait, you can’t do that because the Supreme Court of Texas has already said otherwise.

  6. I would look forward to read a rebuttal to this opinion piece that would highlight some other aspects such as:
    – Short term rentals are usually very well maintained due to the nature of the business. This means that they are pleasant to the eye when walking around the neighborhood.
    – The rise in taxes and property values have forced out people who used to live in the neighborhood. The housing prices in KW/Lavaca have doubled/tripled (?) over the last 10 years. The average income in San Antonio has increased from $53K to $56K over the same period. This may have led to a vacuum that was filled by people who tried to make their money back either by fully or partly renting their houses.
    – What are the exact numbers of short term rental that are owned by people who do not live there?
    – Do month-to-month rental count as short term rental? Should they be banned?

    I believe that there is a complete other side to the coin that is worth exploring.

    • There are houses around me that may not meet your qualification of “pleasant to the eye” but have absolutely wonderful occupants who live there. Neighbors whom I can call on, watch my children, share stories, and more. This really has nothing to do with how well kept a property is and everything to do with neighborhoods being neighborhoods not hotel zones.

      That rise in values isn’t the reason we have STR2s. Most of the STR2s were purchased at the lower-end of the scale, removing them from the market for families with more moderate incomes. STR1s are different from STR2s. Most neighbors support renting STR1s to help with property taxes. Most STR2s in Lavaca are investment properties. Only a few of the 40 or so have ever been lived in by the person who owns them.

      A month-to-month rental is 30 days (with the exception of February) and doesn’t qualify as a short-term-rental. There are very few, but for those that do rent month-to-month, the tenant typically stays well over one month. The vast majority of short term renters stay a few days. Occasionally someone rents for a month, but not most.

      One house as a STR is not typically a big deal. Whole blocks with the majority of houses as STR means we no longer have a neighborhood. The ordinance will not remove current STR2s, but will provide a density restriction. This is a positive for other neighborhoods outside Lavaca and King William who want more.

  7. And of course there was the prominent undertaker who was going to turn the Wulff house into a funeral parlor in the 1960s. Also numerous zoning battles fought beginning in the 1940s by the King William Area Conservation Society and continued by the King William Association. All of which led to the city’s first historic neighborhood designation and the neighborhood being the first in Texas listed in the National Register. Please protect this hard earned legacy.

    • Yes, zoning is another matter. This is not a zoning question. That’s already been decided.

  8. While the author dismisses the infringement of property rights in a parenthetical statement, that really is the core of this issue. OHP and the historic design guidelines restrict design, not use. Zoning is the rulebook we have agreed to in San Antonio in regards to usage. The Supreme Court of Texas has already ruled that a short-term rental is a residential use, not a commercial use. It might be a business, but a business can still be a residential use (like the long-term rentals that the author says are an important part of King William).

    The 12.5% threshold is a violation of property rights because one person’s right to use their residential property for a residential purpose will be denied merely because their neighbor is already exercising that right. This is absurd, un-Texan, un-American, and un-neighborly. STR owners are not infringing on anyone else’s property rights. Rather, the author’s argument here boils down to “but we don’t liiiiiiiike them”. This is not a valid reason, either by the standard of the reasonable person or the law, for the denial of property rights.

    • So when did imposing a revolving door of out of towners on your surrounding neighbors become a property right? It’s a business venture, plain and simple, and cities have had the right to control businesses in residential areas since forever.

  9. Rick Casey is speaking on behalf of King William, but this isn’t just King William’s fight. Lavaca – still very much a mixed income, diverse neighborhood with new families and other families who have been here for 60+ years – has been hard hit by STR2s. Our homes tend to be smaller, and much much cheaper than KW. We are also even closer to downtown, HemisFair and the Alamodome.

    Other nearby neighborhoods haven’t been hit so hard…..yet. Other neighborhoods WANT investors to fix houses. Unfortunately, for the families who call these neighborhoods home, this means they lose their neighbors – or the potential for actual community. On the plus side, if there is no density restriction, there’s less incentive for investors to go to the other neighborhoods while they can continue to eat up Lavaca until there’s little community left. That has happened on some blocks already.

    The vast majority of residents in Lavaca, from newcomers to old timers, have begged for some restrictions on STRs. They love visitors, but they want neighbors.

  10. The Texas Association of REALTORS® is asking for comments from our members regarding a number of issues to be considered in the next legislative session. One of them is as follows: “A recommendation that TAR support legislation declaring that a municipality may not adopt or enforce a local law that expressly or effectively prohibits the use of a property as a short-term rental.” You can bet I’ll let them know what I think about this. After all the work that citizens and COSA have done to put together regulations for our city and we should let the State of Texas say NO. Really???

    • Hi Lynn! I know we disagree on this issue, but I just wanted to clarify that all the work that has been put in is a sunk cost. I personally feel like it’s been a tremendous waste of resources, and that the City has not paid attention to the results of their own research into how ineffective ordinances like this have been in other cities. Regardless, that work/effort/time should not be a factor in the decision to approve or reject the proposed ordinance.

      Further, saying that we shouldn’t “let” the state of Texas say no doesn’t accurately reflect the power dynamics at play. The State has the authority to say no both legislatively and judicially, and the City will have to step in line. I expect that the legislative action will happen before judicial action, but either one or both will have the same effect: no density cap on STRs.

  11. We moved to Nashville from San Antonio four years ago. We live in a historical neighborhood which unfortunately has been overrun by STR’s. It completely changes the fabric of the neighborhood. Basically you don’t have neighbors. Instead, you have party houses. I truly hope San Antonio gets a handle on this and it needs to happen quickly. In nashville developers have bought properties, demolished them and built new, bigger homes that accommodate large groups exclusively used as STR’s, basically eliminating neighborhoods as we once knew them. It also contributes to the displacement of locals who can no longer afford to live in their communities. We’ve seen these changes in just the four years we’ve live in Nashville. San Antonians should not let that happen.

    • You moved to a strong property rights state when you came to Texas. You might not like it, but it’s a fact. Protecting areas needs to be done with zoning, and while King William is zoned residential, the courts have said that STRs are residential uses. This does not turn the property into a commercially zoned property, nor does it remove it from use as a residence. CRS

  12. There are a lot of feelings here, but few facts.

    What do you think can be done? The ordinance is already written and the vote is on November 1. There isn’t anything that bans Type 2’s, and there won’t be, or can’t be. Why give this argument at all? If you don’t like it, sell your home, take your giant gain, and move to your “real neighborhood.”

    The reason why it will be stopped at the state level is because it violates several property and civil rights to limit what people can do with their property. Period. If “all the work that the citizens of COSA have done to put together regulations” still leaves an illegal ordinance, you can bet that the state and the courts will step in. I sure hope they do. Really.

  13. I’m curious how many of those who herald property rights, condemn density restrictions, and proclaim a distinction between a residential business and a commercial business are current on the hotel occupancy tax?
    I know operators of both types who feel slighted that they’ve “played by the rules” only to have others who circumvent the ordinance tarnish their business model.

  14. Instead of trying to regulate short term rentals why don’t rhey bury the power lines that mess up our beautiful trees and fix our pot hole ridden streets. Then worry about short term rentals!

  15. All one has to do is look to New Orleans to see how the proliferation of STR’s can completely rob a neighborhood of its character and take it away from the locals. Entire blocks in New Orleans are Airbnb’s, and the locals are shoved out. It’s so sad. I have many friends who lived in rent houses in King William long term, and they have been forced out by owners converting to STRs. They can’t compete with what these new owners make from Airbnb and the like. I’m not anti-Airbnb, but I think it’s worth considering banning them in King William and other historic districts that are at risk from being gutted by their presence.

    One thing the author did not dive into too much is that these areas with Airbnb’s taking over the neighborhood go from a neighborhood–a place for citizens to raise their families and build a community–to a tourist destination. It goes from serving the local community to serving a population that is just “here for the weekend”. We should be supporting anything that benefits LOCALS. The tourists have almost the entire Downtown and all of its tacky, Riverwalk restaurants dedicated to them–leave our neighborhoods alone!!!

  16. Interesting discussion…so very many who support open borders for Texas are concerned with the invasion of their neighborhood by persons with whom they are unfamiliar. NOT IN MY BACKYARD…