Williamsburg changes stance on rentals

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September 18, 2017

10:24 PM

With the recent advent of tools such as Uber and cheap ticket-finding websites, technology is making it easier and less expensive to travel. More than ever, online hospitality services like Airbnb, FlipKey and HomeAway have become part of a traveler’s technological repertoire. These services are a popular way for travelers to connect with inexpensive, short-term housing while traveling. Typically, these sites act as brokers, connecting potential renters with property owners.

These sites seem to be growing in popularity. According to the Travel Technology Association’s estimates, only eight percent of leisure travelers used short-term rentals in 2010, but by the end of 2016, that number was above 30 percent and was still increasing. The Brookings Institute think tank predicts that the broader sharing economy, of which short-term rentals make up a part, will grow from a $14 billion industry in 2014 to a $35 billion industry by 2025.

The data also suggest that people using such rentals stay over twice as long as those who don’t and often bring money to new locations outside of hotel districts. These rental sites has proven popular among college-aged individuals, where it serves as a cheaper alternative to hotels.

Every host I’ve met through Airbnb has been very polite and hospitable, but I was also careful on which Airbnbs I’ve selected to go to by looking through online ratings,” Anna Westerhaus ’18 said. “I don’t know how [Airbnb] would do in Williamsburg, though, because I don’t think of Airbnb as catering to families, which I think is what most of the tourism in Williamsburg is.”

“Every host I’ve met through Airbnb has been very polite and hospitable, but I was also careful on which Airbnbs I’ve selected to go to by looking through online ratings,” Anna Westerhaus ’18 said. “I don’t know how [Airbnb] would do in Williamsburg, though, because I don’t think of Airbnb as catering to families, which I think is what most of the tourism in Williamsburg is.”

Currently, Williamsburg only permits short-term rentals through hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and timeshares.

However, in March 2017, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation sponsored by Virginia State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City County). The legislation, SB 1578, allows local governments to create ordinances that would allow for the regulation and taxation of short-term property rentals. While many in the hospitality industry voiced their support for this bill, some users of Airbnb and similar sites said that they feared this would allow local governments to levy high taxes on online rentals.

This relaxation has prompted the City of Williamsburg’s city council to consider drafting an ordinance to allow online short-term property rentals in Williamsburg. According to City Councilman Benny Zhang ’16, the city council members are just now discussing these relaxations — not because they were uninterested in allowing Airbnb, but because of the need to comply with the Dillon rule.

“It’s not necessarily because the City wasn’t interested in doing that,” Zhang said. “It’s actually because Virginia did not allow it. Virginia — we are under a Dillon rule state — the idea is that localities cannot do anything without express permission from the state.”

Named after the writings of Judge John Forest Dillon, the Dillon rule is used in determining whether a local government has a certain power. The rule states that if there is any reasonable doubt over whether a local government does have a certain power, then that power has not been granted to that local government. The state of Virginia routinely applies this rule, which can make it a barrier to new local government responses.

In order for us to allow this, we had to ask the state, and the state just passed something this year allowing all localities to adopt short-term rentals,” Zhang said. “There was a bill that got passed by Senator Norman that allowed, by ordinance, counties to allow short-term rental registries, making them legal. Long story short, it’s a relatively new thing, and that’s why we’re only just now considering this.”

“In order for us to allow this, we had to ask the state, and the state just passed something this year allowing all localities to adopt short-term rentals,” Zhang said. “There was a bill that got passed by Senator Norman that allowed, by ordinance, counties to allow short-term rental registries, making them legal. Long story short, it’s a relatively new thing, and that’s why we’re only just now considering this.”

Zhang said that the City Council is currently discussing restricting these short-term rentals to certain addresses, including parts of Henry and Scotland streets, where there is already a significant amount of renters.

“That’s like kind of in the outskirts of the city; it’s already highly rented out and wouldn’t really detract from the single-family [home] neighborhood around the College,” Zhang said. “They want to make that with a special exception. I think the main concern with the City is that we actually care more about the land use than the potential revenue because mostly counties are doing this to generate money. For us, we have the challenge of balancing land use regulations … we place a high premium on our neighborhoods.”

The draft ordinance also would only allow short-term rentals in single-family houses that are occupied by the owner and would disallow the use of a specified rental properties for a short-term rental. Under the draft ordinance, no more than two bedrooms in a given property would be available for rent.

According to Zhang, while revenue matters, the City Council is primarily concerned with making sure that positive qualities of the City’s neighborhoods are not affected by allowing rentals through Airbnb, FlipKey or HomeAway.

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  • Caleb York

(1) Reader Comment

  1. Sara L
    September 19, 2017 at 10:52 AM

    It's a shame the government tries to dictate what we can do with our personal property. I see plenty of VA homes on airbnb. In this draft that proposes only 2 bedrooms in single family homes could be rented, that would exclude families like mine from renting! We have 5 in our family so far and 2 bedrooms wouldn't be very private. Doesn't Williamsburg want to draw in more families? Luckily we live here! 😉 We've been using Homeaway and Airbnb for years! It's how we afford family vacations. I love being able to rent a whole home with kitchen to accommodate us on travel! We'd never be able to swing 2 hotel rooms (once you hit 5 family members, mom and dad have to sleep in separate rooms and split up the kids--hotels max at 4 persons per room) plus meals otherwise.

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