The city’s hospitality industry could gain another major player later this month, as City Council is set to consider a new policy that would allow homeowners across the city to rent out a single bedroom through short-term rental services such as Airbnb and VRBO.
Currently, city code makes it illegal for homeowners to rent their homes through short-term rental sites, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Although many of the more than 300 local rooms listed on Airbnb are either traditional bed and breakfasts or timeshares — both of which are permitted — there are still a number of private homes in the city listed on the service. Under state code, short-term rentals are defined as lasting 30 days or less.
Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association, said that without a legal pathway for homeowners looking to rent rooms in their homes as Airbnbs, the current short-term rental landscape in Williamsburg is widely unregulated.
“It should be strictly enforced, and part of our frustration is that there has been a complete lack of enforcement, and everybody knows that they’re out there,” he said.
But according to Carolyn Murphy, director of the city’s Planning Department, the city has stepped in to stop about 15 homeowners in the past two years after discovering they were using their homes as short-term rentals. She said enforcement is carried out by the city’s Zoning Department, which finds illegal short-term rental listings either through complaints from neighbors or by doing a monthly scan of popular online services.
“If you take 15 over two years, that’s not a big burden on staff right now. There’s not hundreds of people in violation in the city,” she said. “A lot of them are the timeshares and the existing bed and breakfasts, who do list their rooms on those websites, which is legal.”
The new regulations up for council’s approval Feb. 14 would allow homeowners across all city neighborhoods to rent one bedroom in their homes for a maximum of 30 days per renter, and for a maximum of 104 days per year, under the condition that the homeowner continues to reside in the house while the renter is there. Whole-home rentals would remain illegal, and neighborhoods with Homeowners Associations would still have the discretion to ban short-term rentals.
Homeowners also would be required to have a business license issued by the Williamsburg Commissioner of Revenue, along with approval from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, and would have to pay personal property taxes on every item in the room being rented.
How would the regulations compare?
Cities that are often cited as Williamsburg’s tourism competitors, such as Charleston, S.C., have also found themselves struggling to find a solution for short-term rentals in recent years.
Last April, Charleston passed a set of regulations that allow homeowners across the city to host up to four short-term renters at a time, but banned whole-house rentals.
Jacob Lindsey, City of Charleston director of planning, preservation and sustainability, said that the city hoped to find a compromise that would both create a simple solution for people interested in renting out their homes as short-term rentals under city guidelines, while also creating a registry that would allow the municipality to easily track and penalize illegal short-term rentals.
“Short-term renting was illegal throughout the city, and we knew that it was taking place throughout the city even though it was illegal,” he said. “What we have today is a very successful policy which is enforceable, allows short-term rentals throughout the city, is highly limited (and) protects the quality of life for residents.”
When asked if Charleston’s short-term rental policy has had an adverse effect on the rest of the city’s hospitality industry, Lindsey said a number of citizens and local business owners voiced their concerns and support for legal short-term rentals while the regulations were being crafted, and that the ordinance has proven to be an effective compromise between the two groups.
“Regulating short-term rentals is one of the most complex things that a city can do today, but it’s important for maintaining quality of life in the city,” he said.
Williamsburg residents and business representatives are split on the potential impact of the proposed new regulations.
Debbie Keane, co-owner of A Williamsburg White House Bed and Breakfast on Jamestown Road, has advocated for holding short-term rentals to the same standard as traditional bed and breakfasts at past Planning Commission meetings. She said that by banning whole-house rentals, legalized Airbnbs in the city would pose less of a risk to her business.
“They’re not going to allow whole-house rentals, so it negates all of the discussion that’s been going on about being on a fair playing field with legal bed and breakfasts,” Keane said. “A bed and breakfast offers a breakfast in the morning, and (Airbnbs) are not going to be able to offer that. They’re basically going to be offering an economical overnight stay in a room, which is what some people look for, so it’s a great option for them.”
Kirkland disagreed, saying bed and breakfasts across the city would be the first to see their businesses suffer if Airbnbs are made legal.
“While, in the short-term, it may not have an impact on our business, long-term, it’ll slowly start to chip away and it’ll hurt some of the bed and breakfasts first,” he said. “There’s not enough of that inventory to make a giant dent in what a hotel is doing, but it will be more noticeable for a bed and breakfast than it will be for hotels.”
Jim Joseph, chairman of the Williamsburg Neighborhood Council, said he supports the regulations up for City Council approval, but that Neighborhood Council members have voiced their concerns about allowing short-term rentals at past meetings.
“They’re worried about the value of their property,” he said. “If a person has a house on a nice street and their nextdoor neighbor starts renting out to Airbnb on a routine basis, then you know the value of that property next to them is not going to be as great.”
Local tourism officials were mixed when asked whether the less-restrictive regulations could give Williamsburg an edge over tourism competitors when it comes to attracting overnight visitors.
“There just isn't enough data to know whether this would help tourism or not,” Jody Puckett, temporary administrator of the Tourism Council wrote in an email. “Our focus is on marketing the destination and the decision lies with the locality.”
Where: City Council Chambers, Stryker Center, 412 N. Boundary St.
When: 2 p.m. Feb. 14.
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.