Shape of the beast

by David Forbes December 13, 2016

Airbnb-style rentals are a massive, controversial issue in Asheville. The Blade’s built a map to show where they’re being halted, who’s profiting, who owns them and more as local government continues to wrangle with this complicated behemoth

Above: a shot from the Blade‘s interactive map showing the impact of Airbnb and over a year of city enforcement efforts.

“Rad pad,” “Bohemian Bungalow,” “Montford Manor,” “Hipster Apartments,” “Old Asheville Charm.” So the listings blared, offering nightly prices from $50 for a room to over $600 for a mansion. They include tiny homes and sprawling gentry caves, each of them a part of a much larger issue, one that’s vexed locals and their elected leaders for years: Airbnb-style rentals and what, exactly, to do about them. It comes back to the fore at tonight’s Asheville City Council meeting.

Back in August 2015, Council stepped up enforcement of its ban, in most neighborhoods, on much of this practice, formally termed short-term rentals: renting out whole homes and apartments to tourists and visitors on Airbnb and similar sites. Fines went from $100 a day for violators to $500, and they devoted full-time staffers to tackle the problem.

By the time they did so, the controversy had already built to a boil, a fight over the future of the city. To its critics the trend was worsening the already-vicious housing crisis and threatening neighborhood integrity by kicking locals — especially renters — out in favor of well-off tourists and the profits they bring to local gentry. Its proponents asserted it was a way for local property owners, some facing their own struggles, to make some cash off the booming tourism industry

Council opted for a two-pronged approach, clamping down on enforcement and then, later in 2015, loosening rules on “homestays” to allow locals to rent part — but not all — of the residence they’re living in to tourists and visitors – if they were present on site and got the proper permits. Over the ensuing year, the city put more time and resources towards finding local Airbnb-style rentals and, where they weren’t allowed under the law, ordering them to cease. The issue remained hotly debated, as owners unsuccessfully pushed to allow accessory dwelling units (garage apartments and similar structures) to be legally used for Airbnb-style rentals. Even Airbnb itself got involved, with the tech giant lobbying local leaders and trying to rewrite the homestay policy late last year.

In May Council decided not to allow accessory units to end up as Airbnbs, but it also sent the matter to a task force to study. That task force’s recommendations are back before Council tonight, with a majority suggesting the ban stay in place (and possibly be strengthened) and a smaller number suggesting that the practice be allowed on a limited basis.

The Blade sought records from enforcement for over a year since the with the intent of creating a map revealing more information about the practice: the extent of Airbnb-style rentals and their effect on local communities is notoriously hard to measure. As the records reveal, city staff would often receive a complaint or investigate themselves, find an online listing, visit the property and then cite the owner. They gave them a time period, usually 30 to 60 days, to either get the proper permits (for a homestay) or swear in an affidavit that they’ll cease all short-term rentals at the site. After that, fines can be levied, though in some cases it’s not clear from the records we received how much and if they were.

Indeed, while the city of Asheville did a good job at releasing an extensive set of documents to us, there were hurdles in trying to get information across to the public, in extracting and narrowing down relevant information from widely different cases, different document packets, different formats and locations. In some cases the results of the city’s enforcement actions were clear, in others not so much.

Despite those hurdles, the results for the 129 properties that emerged offer far more information about this issue than was available before. You can view the map here or below. Click on each point and it will reveal more information about the property and case in question:

So what key information does this reveal? For one thing, renting out whole homes and apartments is a hot commodity. Of the sites, only 16 were for private rooms in a larger dwelling (in two other cases it was unclear). All the rest were for whole housing units. With prices usually over $100 a night, sometimes far over that, it’s easy to see the appeal for property owners — and the fear by renters and affordable housing advocates that the spread of short-term rentals will push locals out. The brute fact that emerges from these documents is that none but the wealthiest long-term renters could bring in a similar profit.

The city’s citations cluster around North Asheville, though West and East Asheville have their fair share too. South Asheville has almost none. The impacts on different neighborhoods vary widely. In some there was only a single home that the city cited for short-term rentals. In others there were far more. On Maxwell Street near downtown, for example, there was an Airbnb next to an Airbnb across from an apartment building turned into Airbnbs, all cited at some point by the city.

Another major question, from the start, has been where the profits are primarily going. Is it cash-strapped home-owners trying to keep a roof over their head in an increasingly expensive city or wealthy companies and property owners trying to make a profit regardless of the consequences? The Asheville Citizen-Times, reviewing some of the same documents from a shorter enforcement time period, concluded that 62 percent of the owners had other properties beside the one they were renting out to tourist and visitors.

While our methods were different (as we’ll detail below), we found a somewhat similar result. Sixty seven of the locations given citations by the city, just over half, were owned by property owners either based outside Buncombe County or owning more than one local property.

So what information did we focus on?

Owner: The property owner cited by the city in a given case

Date of violation: The date (or dates, in a few cases) the city formally told the property owner to stop short-term rentals at the site.

Local? Is the property owner based in Buncombe County? If not, where?

Entire home/apartment? Is the owner (or tenant, in a few cases) renting out a whole housing unit? Usually this is based on the owners’ own declaration in the listings on Airbnb or similar sites. In a few cases this is based on city staff’s findings after directly investigating the site.

Price: What price was the owner offering to tourists and visitors?

Owner has multiple local properties? Does the owner (or a holding company run by them, etc) own another property in Buncombe County besides the one being cited. If so, how many? Results based on Buncombe GIS records.

Result: Based on the city documents we obtained, what was the result of the citation? Did the owner get an official homestay permit? Did they swear to stop doing short-term rentals on the site? In some cases the result is marked “unclear” if the documents don’t directly reveal a resolution. This isn’t claiming that the city or property owners didn’t eventually resolve the case, just that the documents we received don’t directly reveal the result. In a number of cases, we’ve requested clarification about some of these results (and other information we uncovered during the course of this project). In others, the case may have been resolved after we requested the documents this Fall.

Doc: The citation and enforcement documents for this property, obtained from the city of Asheville.

Hopefully, as Council heads into another round on this contentious issue, this information can better inform the public debate.

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