The Advocate

By Jay Williams, Jr.

The best news of 2018 might be what was missing from Mayor John Tecklenburg’s State of the City speech.

After touting his administration’s accomplishments, the mayor confronted the existential threat facing our city: “… now, with rising seas, a history of ill-advised development in some areas and three major flood events in three years, we simply must make flooding and drainage our city’s top long-range priority.” Amen.

Then the mayor shifted to traffic and transportation, noting that “our residents” identified “13 priority projects that will be added to our region’s long-term traffic plan.” He specifically mentioned several initiatives, but the most notable project was the one that he left out. There was no mention of 526. Amen, Amen.

Let’s pray that was no mistake. Financially, our city can’t fund the $2 billion it will take to make Charleston flood resilient and simultaneously build a billion dollar road we don’t need. And if there is any money in the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, we need all of it to be earmarked to protect Lockwood Drive and other critical roads that are flooding even on sunny days. Imagine the lives that would be at risk if people needed to escape a truly dangerous storm?

The mayor then addressed “crucial livability issues that matter most to our citizens — particularly affordable housing and public safety.”

“Almost 40 people a day are moving into our region,” he said. But, “with that boom has come a serious shortage of affordable and workforce housing” so “the city has taken steps to aggressively address this challenge, with the passage of a $20 million affordable housing bond …”

           Stop right there.

There are forces at work that, unchecked, will overwhelm all the mayor’s initiatives to maintain, much less grow, the amount of affordable and workforce housing on the peninsula.

As we go to print, the Planning Commission is proposing new citywide ordinances to govern short-term rentals (STR’s). The Old and Historic Districts will still be protected, but all bets are off for the peninsula north of Calhoun.

Rather than simply adopt the carefully crafted regulations crafted during the yearlong process of the council-appointed Short Term Rental Task Force, the Planning Commission appears hell-bent on handing out permission slips to undermine residential zoning rules and blanket much of the city with mini-hotels.

Aside from flooding, short-term rentals (STR’s) are the other major existential threat to the city and the effects will be just as damaging. Here’s why.

Those 40-people-a-day who’ve moved here during the last decade have propelled mid-peninsula house prices to all-time highs and now the promise of legalized short-term rentals has set those prices on fire.

Hundreds of apartments have already been turned into illegal, highly profitable short-term rentals, displacing service and retail workers, office personnel and medical students who once lived in them. Traditional apartments that rented for $1,500 a month are being cut up, posted on online on short-term rental sites like Airbnb and now rent for an average of $212 a night. That’s better than $6,300 a month! It’s no wonder that houses are quickly snapped up across the peninsula on the chance that short-term rentals will be legalized or that the rules will be relaxed.

The companies driving this trend are big business. Only nine years old, Airbnb alone features more than 3,000,000 worldwide short-term rental listings and is worth over $30 billion. According to Airdna, a rental monitoring website, there are 1,531 Airbnb listings for Charleston, a number that’s growing 84 percent annually!

If things don’t change, the Planning Commission won’t disappoint these speculators.

Short-term rentals not only replace traditional rental apartments and drive up the prices; they make it impossible for many families to remain in their neighborhoods. That’s not what Mayor Tecklenburg says he wants.

Here are highlights of those Planning Commission’s changes:

Although the city staff, the Short-Term Rental Task Force and every neighborhood organization opposes the idea of “whole house rentals,” the Planning Commission’s recent draft made an exception for them. Full-time residents will be able to rent out their entire home for 72 days a year, days when owners are not there to supervise the guests. How can the city possibly enforce that? Will an officer visit the home for 73 straight days to figure out if there is a violation, because it’s not likely to be limited to 72 days any other way? Note, 72 days also translates to 26 weekends.

The Task Force recommended limiting each house rental to four adults per night. The Planning Commission revised that to “two adults per bedroom.” What’s a bedroom? Does putting a bed in a dining room or a den make it a bedroom?

Perhaps the worst proposed change abolishes the Task Force’s requirement for a 50-year (or any) age limit on buildings that could be rented as STR’s. Under the Planning Commission’s plan, anyone could build a new mini-hotel behind their house or fill any vacant lot with a short-term rental building.

Christopher Cody, manager for advocacy of Historic Charleston, said, “Imagine having the back yards in Wagner Terrace, Hampton Park and the East Side filled in and tuned into hotels. This is happening; these are the applications we’re already seeing at the BAR. The restrictions covering the Old and Historic District should be expanded to cover the entire peninsula to protect these fragile neighborhoods from short term rentals.”

Councilmember Mike Seekings agrees. “Zoning is forever until it’s not. It’s not just for your property; it’s also for the properties around you. You have every right to rely on the zoning and the protection it gives you. Now we’re talking about opening up homes as businesses with limited regulation and that’s totally inconsistent with long tem planning.”

Major short-term operators called “super hosts” that rent more than 300 days a year, the realtors who manage these properties and the huge online businesses like VRBO and Home Away that facilitate these transactions, have one primary concern: money.

“They have no social skin in the game,” Seekings said. “It’s a flat transaction and Charleston wasn’t built on flat transactions, it was built on preservation and community. I find it difficult to find anything with short-term rentals that’s consistent with long-term preservation,” he added.

The worldwide growth of short-term rentals is staggering. Airbnb made more than a billion dollars in revenue in the last three months. These online rentals are often hidden from local authorities and neighbors, enforcement of safety regulations is expensive and spotty, parking requirements must be enforced, fees and taxes often aren’t collected and disturbances aren’t rare.

For the Charleston peninsula, it’s worse. Already crammed with hotels, businesses, traffic and congestion, residents can still give thanks for their quiet streets and neighborhoods filled with friends and acquaintances. But if the Planning Commission continues on its path, the quiet civility of our fragile peninsula neighborhoods will be forever changed.

 

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

 

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