A majority on the Raleigh City Council seem dead-set on passing regulations for Airbnb—which is still technically illegal in the city, after four long years of fruitless debate—that exclude whole-house rentals, despite it being one of the service’s more attractive features, especially for people traveling with families or staying for more than a few days.
It’s unclear if any amount of discussion or new information can change their minds.
“We don’t have the support of enough people on council who want [whole-house rentals] to happen,” council member Stef Mendell said during a Healthy Neighborhoods Committee meeting Tuesday. “I’m committing to getting this passed and getting it done, because we’ve got eighty percent agreement on this, and I say let’s go with what we have.”
The committee approved draft regulations for short-term rentals that excluded whole-house rentals. Those regulations will now go back before the whole council before being sent to the city’s planning commission and then to a public hearing. Although Mayor Nancy McFarlane and council member Nicole Stewart backed whole-house rentals and asked city staffers to look into adding a separate ordinance to legalize them, Mendell and Russ Stephenson pointed out that a majority on the city council don’t believe residents should have the right to rent out their entire house, and they don’t want to bog down the process by debating it further.
Still, staffers will do as the mayor asked, as futile as it may be.
Although they are currently illegal, the city hasn’t enforced its ordinance banning short-term rentals since 2015. There are more than six hundred Airbnb hosts currently in the city, The News & Observer reported. Wake County hosts had more than sixty-eight thousand guests and netted $7.9 million in profit, according to the service.
Though business is booming, the city has only fielded thirty-seven complaints regarding Airbnb since 2013.
And yet a majority on the council, which prioritizes neighborhood concerns, is convinced that strict regulations are required.
Mendell said Tuesday that she’s heard “from a lot of people” with “real horror stories” who are “suffering living next to bad actors.” An enforcement regime that relies on complaints could be challenging, she said, so a ban on whole-house rentals and other onerous rules—including limits on the number of short-term rentals per neighborhood and limiting the number of adult guests per house—are better.
The city is modeling its regulations after Asheville’s, where new city attorney Robin Currin previously served. But there’s a key difference, as McFarlane pointed out: Asheville has a tourist-driven economy; Raleigh does not.
“Just look at the data we have,” she said. “So many people are doing it now and [there are] very, very few complaints in the grand scheme of how many people are doing it across the city. I don’t really see the need to punish all of them if they are doing it right.”
A dozen supporters of Airbnb raised a thumbs-up to her comment.
Stewart asked if the council was attempting to regulate a problem that doesn’t yet exist, to which Mendell replied, “Oh, we have a problem.”
Stephenson reminded that, at the end of the day, all that matters is that the regulations must earn five votes. Otherwise, the issue will remain stuck in limbo.
“We are never going to find the perfect solution because it doesn’t exist,” he said. “But I think it is a huge mistake for us as a city council to start impugning the integrity and motives of our fellow councilors on this issue. We may not agree with each other on these issues, but ultimately, for us to be an effective council, we have to get to five on things.”
Airbnb host and advocate Gregg Stebbens left the meeting more confused about the rules than when it began. He called the committee’s action “shameful.”
“They accomplished nothing today but wrote a bunch of gray stuff and voted on it,” Stebbens said. “We’ve been operating for four years with no rules and almost no problems. Why so much complexity?”
“If we’re renting hundreds [of Airbnbs] here and we have two complaints a year, where’s the problem? What are we solving?” McFarlane asked after the meeting. “I hope the council will think about the real-life implication and data that’s going on.”