Should the city of Charlottesville amend its zoning code to accommodate the phenomenon of room-sharing, an international trend where homeowners temporarily rent out rooms or their entire house on a short-term basis? Should government be regulating how people share their homes?

Those are questions city government will face in 2015.

“There are at least a hundred properties in the city that are doing this on an annual basis, and we’ve received complaints on four properties,” city planner Matthew Alfele said at a meeting of the Planning Commission earlier this month.

However, the practice is not currently regulated by the city’s zoning code, which means that neighbors who complain have no legal way to seek recourse.

“Is this in compliance with the current city code and who is making sure that the code is being honored?” asked city resident Elena Speidel, who says her quality of life has been affected by short-term rentals. “Is a business appropriate in a totally residential neighborhood?”

The closest the zoning code comes to addressing room-sharing is a “homestay” category that allows bed and breakfasts to be operated in owner-occupied residences.

However, any homeowner whose residence is rented out to more than three unrelated people at a time on a short-term basis is technically in violation.

The issue has emerged as companies such as Air B-n-B and Stay Charlottesville have formed to make it easier for homeowners to find people to temporarily rent their space.

“It’s a very fluid market that we’re in and we’re trying to address it and be fair to all parties, including brick and mortar [hotels], and fair to neighborhoods who want to keep the nature of their neighborhoods intact while also respecting homeowners’ rights,” Alfele said.

City officials also point out that they are not collecting the transient lodging taxes that a hotel guest would have to pay.

“It is a taxable activity and we have been unable to tax many of these folks for fear of lending legitimacy to an activity that is currently illegal,” said Todd Divers, the city’s commissioner of revenue. “There’s a ton of activity out there and we aren’t getting any revenue from it.”

The city is reviewing the issue partially at the request of companies that are facilitating the practice.

“We have dealt with Neighborhood Development Services for years and have a great relationship with them, but we know there are a couple of bad apples presenting us in a bad light,” said Travis Wilburn, a co-founder of Stay Charlottesville

Wilburn said clients range from families of patients at the University of Virginia Medical Center to holiday rentals, but the biggest weekend is UVa graduation.

“This town is sold out to hotels and there are a lot of people who want to leave for graduation,” Wilburn said. He added that he has worked with homeowners who can’t sell their property and need to avoid foreclosure by turning their property into short-term rentals.

However, neighbors of homes where short-stay rentals are offered are concerned the practice can hurt their quality of life.

Speidel said her family has lived on Jefferson Park Circle since 1941. She told commissioners she was dismayed when she learned that temporary rentals are occurring on her street.

“This group was noisy, were consuming considerable amounts of alcohol, and were standing around a fire built in a metal container which was about 50 feet from the side of our house,” she said.

Speidel said she did some research online and was astonished to see that seven-bedroom homes were being offered for between $1,750 and $2,000 a night.

Martin Killian said he and his neighbors on University Circle want the zoning code to be as restrictive as possible.

“Now we have these transient homes and we have these groups of eight to 10 or 15 people who come during the weekends,” Killian said. “We are afraid that if you follow through with these proposals, you will not have the wherewithal and manpower to enforce your own new laws.”

Commissioner Lisa Green, who works as a zoning code enforcement officer for Albemarle County, agreed with Killian’s concern. She said the city needs to take time to get the regulations right to make sure they will hold up in court.

“On one hand, when you have the regulations, there’s something to fall back on,” Green said. However, she said the city does not have enough zoning officers to keep up with enforcement.

Commissioner Genevieve Keller said she is opposed to opening up the city to additional business uses in residential areas. She said she thinks temporary rentals will decrease the city’s affordable housing stock.

“We’ve heard about people buying houses deliberately to make them transient lodging facilities,” Keller said. “Those are all houses now where families do not live.”

Other commissioners agreed the issue needs to be addressed through a change to the zoning code.

“Clearly, there is money to be made with this and I can see it growing and I can see the abuses getting worse,” said Commissioner Jody Lahendro.

Among other things, staff had recommended requiring a provisional-use permit for transient lodging facilities in most zoning districts.

However, the Planning Commission said it needed more time to consider the matter.

The City Council will now need to decide early next year whether to pursue regulation.
 

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