A year’s worth of hard work on crafting a citywide plan to control short-term rentals in Charleston homes met with a resounding slap in the face last week. And that slap and that plan could reverberate across the river to West Ashley.
For the past year, a nominated committee has been drawing up a set of recommendations to present first to the city’s Planning Commission and then later to City Council of how best to regulate local homeowners allowing short-term guests into their homes.
AirBnB and Vacation Rental By Owner websites have affected the travel industry worldwide, as tourists have found another place to stay in popular destinations for less that what hoteliers are charging.
The committee was formed after a series of public complaints about downtown “party house” rentals disturbed well-heeled neighbors.
The three-tier plan presented last week broke up Charleston into three zones, roughly south of Broad, south of Calhoun, and north of Calhoun and the rest of the city, which this story will focus on.
Zone three recommendations would require that short-stay guests would be allowed only in owner-occupied homes that are more than 50 years old. Owners would be required to live in the homes and be present, but not 24 hours of the day.
The idea, according to Planning Director Jacob Lindsey would be to balance private property rights and a small city of roughly 130,000 residents that welcomes more than 5 million visitors a year.
Additionally, the recommendations would block corporate interests from buying up homes in a neighborhood and turning them into ersatz “commercial” hotels, potentially irreparably tearing the fabric of that community.
But the recommendation that seemed to draw the most ire was requiring the 50-year standard, included so that newer neighborhoods which usually already had HOA convenances barring short-term rentals would not be affected.
“It’s dumb,” says City Councilman Bill Moody. “what does a house being 50 years old have to do with anything?”
Moody says he’s used short-term rentals when he’s traveled abroad, and wonders why Charleston can’t be like every other city in the world. He even has family who have a dedicated first-floor apartment in their home in a chi-chi neighborhood in San Francisco.
“It’s stupid and it only takes care of the rich,” says “Rose,” a West Ashley empty-nester single mom who has turned to short-term rentals as a way of keeping her house.
Rose’s home is a charming cottage west of the Ashley, dating back several more decades than would be covered by the recommendations. She refurbished the out-of-use attic apartment with the help of a friend.
Taking on boarders, says Rose, dates back to before Medieval times, and local government has no business “butting” into what she wants to do inside her own home.
“Government has no problem with cruise ships polluting our waters, bringing in tourists who do nothing for the local economy other than buy T-shirts, cheap beer, and Starbucks,” says Rose. “But somehow they are worried if I rent out a room in my home” and then spend the night at friend’s house?
Retirement savings burned up on a failed business venture and her child’s tuition to an expensive out-of-state college, Rose says she was struggling to figure out how she could age in place, in the house she’s called home.
Now, she sees City Hall working to protect hoteliers’ pocketbooks rather than her’s. “It’s ridiculous what hotels charge people to stay around here … and people staying in an AirBnB weren’t going to stay in your hotels at that price anyway,” she says, pointing out that no one has problems with whole-house rentals at area beaches.
“As a Airbnb owner in West Ashley I’m very concerned about the proposal to restrict Airbnb’s in Charleston,” says “Lindsey,” another West Ashley resident who rents a house through AirBnB. Like Rose, Lindsey also preferred to speak on the condition of anonymity out of concern she could be fined for using her second home in West Ashley as a short term rental. The house, which she bought with her mother to rent as an AirBnB, helps Lindsey afford the rising cost of Charleston living. She currently has one child in college and another who will soon be heading to college.
“It’s less about the loss in revenue that I will see. I’m more upset that there will be less family-friendly and affordable options to see and explore Charleston,” says Lindsey, who personally helps her renters by offering suggestions on sights to see and places to eat and shop while in town. “Some of my favorite memories are sharing time in a kitchen or living room on vacation and bonding with family and friends. Hotels don’t provide that option at affordable prices. I think this would be a disservice to Charleston.”
Unlike Lindsey, Rose does approve of the measure that would require rentals to be in owners’ actual homes. Councilman Moody echoes that sentiment, saying it’s wrong to “plop” a hotel in the middle of a neighborhood.
Moody points out that his historic home, located along the banks of the Ashley River, would be “perfect” for rentals, as its already hosted a few family and friends’ weddings. He’s even welcomed, for free, old Citadel friends and their families into the upstairs for long football weekends.
But to rent out the whole house on a regular basis would hurt his neighbors, he thinks.
“They do whole-house rentals in places like Augusta and Hilton Head when there are golf tournaments, maybe we could do something like that here, but limit it to once a year,” says Moody, who added that the whole matter will be deeply dug into at City Council.