Planning commission hears Williamsburg residents' concerns about Airbnb, rental policies at housing forum

rarriaza@vagazette.com

More than 30 city residents attended the Williamsburg Planning Commission’s community forum on housing, where members of the public were invited to give their thoughts on the city’s neighborhoods.

The open forum-style meeting was meant as a listening session for members of Planning Commission to gather the community’s thoughts and inform their ongoing comprehensive plan drafting process, according to board chairwoman Elaine McBeth. The meeting was facilitated by Virginia Beach-based consultant Henry Cobb.

Once finalized, the comprehensive plan will serve as a policy guide for the city over the next five years.

Those who wished to speak were invited up to the podium by Cobb and could address three main topics: short-term rentals such as Airbnbs, rental policies and affordable housing initiatives.

Many of the speakers were vocal in their opposition to allowing more rental properties with four occupants in historic downtown neighborhoods, and also discouraged the board from allowing short-term home rentals in the city.

Chris Gareis, a College of William and Mary professor, said he’s seen 10 houses go onto the market since he moved into his Burns Lane home four years ago, and that half have become rental properties.

“To me, that’s a trend and that’s a disturbing trend because it fundamentally changes the nature of the neighborhood,” he said. “I can tell you that from some experience that I do not always know who lives next to me, even though I may reach out, and that’s problematic to me. I’m very concerned of any additional burden that we would put on neighborhoods by opening up opportunities for folks to rent in our neighborhoods.”

Economic Development Authority board member and William and Mary staff member David Trichler said that while many have heard of the negative effects short-term renters could have, allowing Airbnbs in Williamsburg could help homeowners alleviate pressure from their mortgage payments by renting out a room in their homes.

Others disagreed, saying the practice could have a negative effect on the property values of other homes in the neighborhood.

“I don’t know of any real estate agent here in town that would have a client that says ‘I want you to show me a home in a nice neighborhood next a house that’s going to be rented by strangers throughout the year,’ ” resident Ed Lesley said. “It might be advantageous to the owner, but it’s not advantageous to the neighborhood and if that happens, property values will go down.”

Speakers at the forum also addressed redevelopments and vibrancy efforts in the city such as Midtown Row and upcoming downtown food and drink establishments, such as Mellow Mushroom and the Precarious Beer Project microbrewery. While some said they would be welcome economic drivers, others said they threatened the city’s character.

“Every project that has been put before you has been one which looks like you want to make Williamsburg into a smaller version of Richmond, you’re trying to make us into a big city,” said resident Martha Hunsucker. “The downtown activities, such as all of those beer joints for college students, are not exactly a good idea. We need to think about putting more family-friendly businesses downtown and making it more interesting for the people who actually live here all their lives.”

Natalie Bonsell said she moved to Williamsburg from Norfolk to work in the local restaurant and hospitality industries, but that service workers struggle to find affordable rental properties in the city and that buying a home in Williamsburg is near impossible.

“The housing market here is not equipped for people who like to work in restaurants; you have nobody in that category of employment living here in real homes,” Bonsell said. “Homes aren’t affordable unless you have a two or three-person income with the kind of pay that restaurant and hospitality workers get in this town, and that’s sad that most of the employees of Williamsburg have to drive an hour just to come to work and work at an establishment that they love.”

She suggested the board look for ways to increase the stock of affordable homes for workers who contribute to the city’s sizable tourism industry.

“It has upset me these last couple of years to live here in town and see the way that one side of town is treated better than the other side of town,” Bonsell said.

The Planning Commission will reconvene for its next regular meeting on Oct. 17, and will continue on the topic of short-term rentals, neighborhoods and housing at its next comprehensive plan meeting on Oct. 24.

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

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