Homey stay or animal house next door?

Nick Della Volpe
Features columnist

The hot zoning topic these days is about the potential benefits and problems of Short Term Rentals (STR), more commonly referred to as AirBNBs. These include stays at a residence for a short weekend up to a 30-day rental. To judge by comments at the city’s April 4 neighborhood meeting to discuss the draft regulations, this is all the rage among new homesteaders interested in owning and rehabbing older neighborhood homes for such business.

They argue that short-term rentals can help raise funds needed for the rehab, or to support a more leisurely lifestyle in semi-retirement. Tough questions need to be explored before Knoxville will have answers and a workable set of STR regulations.

First among them is: What will this do to established single-family neighborhoods? Will this introduce a business element into bedroom communities, where residents count on quiet streets and the welcome nosiness of neighbors to keep tabs on strangers in the area and the potential for criminal activity brewing down the block? Does such commercial conduct portend the gradual breakdown of traditional zoning that separates business activity from residential – sort of mixed-use activity gone riot?

Administration officials conducting the meeting also expressed concern that STR conversions may exacerbate the shortage of affordable long-term rental housing.

The issues are more than theoretical. According to Deputy Mayor Bill Lyons and Codes Director Peter Ahrens, there are already over 200 AirBNBs operating in Knoxville … an illegal use in single-family residential districts. Like Uber in the taxi/ride-share world, this idea is spreading.

The administration is proposing a permit system to add a modicum of control to the present laissez-faire situation. The proposal currently requires homeowners to live in the home they are attempting to rent on a short-term basis (Type 1 permit). They would apply for a permit, pay a modest $70 fee, collect hotel and sales taxes, and be responsible to have someone on call within 45 minutes to address complaints. Type 2 permits (no owner presence required) would be available in nonresidential zones.

STRs are different from long-term rentals, which bring new residents into the community. By definition, STRs bring strangers next door. Often these rentals are for weekend stays, especially during football season and festival days. Tourists and friends get to stay in a home-like setting. A nightmare vision, however, might include a half-dozen twenty-something guys drinking beer on the back porch ’til 2 a.m. amid loud talk and music … a college dorm redux. No sleep for the neighbors …

In fairness, the converse might be true. A family traveling through Knoxville might enjoy the quiet comfort of a home over the bustling and somewhat-confined activity in a hotel or motel lobby. In its best form, an AirBNB might introduce newcomers to the hospitality of Knoxville, possibly acting as an informal recruiting service for our hometown. My guess is it will produce both types of scenarios. How equipped is our city codes group to enforce reasonable rules scattered around the town?

At the April 4 meeting, some pro-STR renters argued they should not be limited to one owner- occupied home (under a Type 1 permit). Some already owned or were contemplating buying several homes to use as AirBNBs. “I’m semi-retired and want the added income …” (note: a Type 2 permit does not require owner occupation.)

The bigger question is: when does an occasional short-term rental become a full blown hotel business, operating in your single-family neighborhood? When does the “operator’s” claim to property rights clash with the neighbors’ right to quiet enjoyment of their home? These are open questions.

The city law department is revising the draft rules aired in April. MPC will tackle the proposal in May, followed by City Council review in June. Neighborhoods need to stay involved to help balance and shape the proposal.

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