In January 2015, the city of Raleigh threatened to fine Five Points homeowner Gregg Stebben for renting out his guest quarters on Airbnb, jump-starting a slow-burning debate over if and how the city should regulate "short-term rentals." In October, after about two dozen proponents of the sharing economy pushed back against proposed regulations, the city council appointed a citizen task force to study the issue and report back with recommendations this month.
The problem? The task force has never met. Now, the city is kicking the can farther down the road, looking for recommendations by spring.
"We're meeting in January, and I thought they were saying we were supposed to done in January," says Stebben, a member of the task force. "This has been an eye-opener for me. I'm a fifty-three-year-old guy who feels like he's a junior in a high school civics class."
Before Stebben began renting out his place in 2014, he says, he received assurances from city officials that restrictions against using residential properties for bed-and-breakfasts wouldn't apply unless someone complained. But someone did complain, anonymously, and the city told Stebben to stop or face fines. After this row became a hot local story—cracking down on Airbnb hosts seems to run counter to Raleigh's carefully crafted image as a tech-friendly hub for innovators—the city decided not to enforce those rules.
That was two years ago. The issue has come up again several times since, with the city council unable to fashion regulations and sending the issue back to the planning commission or a committee, rinse, repeat.
Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin says that "a number of people in our start-up community have expressed major frustration" over the stalemate. Former mayor Charles Meeker is bewildered that it's taken this long. "It's better to work out tough issues in two or three committee meetings than to have issues pending for months and months," he says. "Part of the issues of local government is that if these issues are pending, you get tied up. You need to make decisions and move on to something else."
The latest attempt came on October 4; proposed rules would have banned whole-house rentals as well as place a four-hundred foot buffer between short-term rentals—meaning that you can't rent out a room on Airbnb if one of your neighbors signed up first.
After Stebben and others objected, the council again split. Instead of new regulations, the city created the Short-Term Rental Task Force, a sixteen-member group tasked with discussing the issue with stakeholders, studying other markets, and coming up with recommendations at the end of January.
"I walked away from that city council meeting with the impression that they were going to name this task force within two weeks," Stebben says. "And it's now been months."
The task force, says city spokesman John Boyette, "will begin to meet during the second week of January and will meet every two weeks," a total of four times, "with additional meetings scheduled as necessary."
Baldwin tells the INDY that the cause of the delay is capacity. "Our planning staff is just overwhelmed," she says. "They have more on their plate than they could possibly handle, so this has gotten pushed out until they could catch up and prioritize it."
Stebben says part of his frustration stems from the relatively low rate of complaints against Airbnb hosts; at the October meeting, proponents wore shirts that read "500 Hosts, 13,000 Guests, 7 Complaints." (According to Baldwin, between twelve and fifteen complaints have been filed since 2014; of these, some have been deemed unfounded and others are multiple complaints against the same house.) "No one has actually said, 'This is why it's bad for Raleigh,'" Stebben says. "We're debating something for two years and we don't know why it's a problem, or if anyone thinks it's a problem. It's just weird."
"Given the circuitous route this issue has taken through the city's process, I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic we can get something done in the first quarter of 2017," says Brent Woodcox, another member of the task force and the General Assembly's redistricting attorney. "But I'll be more confident about the process once the meetings start, if they are productive."
Baldwin, who has been supportive of Airbnb hosts, says she intends to side with the task force, whatever it decides. "Whatever they come back with, I plan to support," she says. "I don't want to go through this process and then tell all of these citizens who spent all of this time on it, 'Nah, that's not what I want.' At some point you just have to set aside your personal feelings and do what's best for the community."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Home Alone"