A Mobile City Council committee appears willing to take a step back in discussing a law that would regulate short-term rentals like Airbnb, while Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration works to pass a new zoning ordinance.
The administrative services committee was set to debate an ordinance that would’ve required short-term rental landlords to apply for a business license to operate, before finding that such a stipulation violated the current zoning ordinance. The committee instead advised the full council to create a short-term rental citizen advisory committee, which was approved Tuesday, Jan. 12.
“We found out we couldn’t do that because they couldn’t get a business license in an [residential] area,” Councilwoman Gina Gregory, committee chairwoman, said. “We looked at options … but we’re still kind of at square one with this.”
At issue for the committee, council attorney Chris Arledge said, is Airbnb hosts would have to be treated like traditional bed and breakfast owners under the current zoning rules, and therefore couldn’t be zoned residential. Hosts could also not claim a non-conforming use because they were not around before the zoning rules were written.
The options Gregory cited at the most recent committee meeting include two proposed ordinances drafted by Arledge. One was set to look at licensing, taxation and basic safety precautions, and a second would look at zoning.
“With the one that looks at licensing, part of it creates a new category which defines short-term rentals as being occupied for less than 180 days,” Arledge told councilors. The new category would allow for Airbnb hosts to claim a non-conforming use, but wouldn’t allow any new hosts in residential areas.
The other ordinance would amend the zoning code to allow different conditions for owner-occupied short-term rental properties and those that are not owner-occupied.
“We want to protect the integrity of the neighborhoods,” he said.
The idea is to treat owner-occupied properties as bed and breakfasts and those not occupied by a property owner more as a hotel, Arledge told councilors.
Shayla Beaco, executive director of Build Mobile, which encompasses the zoning department of the city, told councilors at the meeting the concern isn’t with the idea of regulations for short-term rentals — it is with the timing.
“Short-term rentals are not included in the most recent drafts of the [unified development code (UDC)],” Beaco told councilors. “For whatever reason, we didn’t hear a groundswell of concern for it.”
As Beaco and her team prepare a push for the fourth and final version of the new UDC, she said it would be easier to wait on the short-term rental regulations until after the new zoning rules are approved.
“It interrupts one path in terms of how to present things to you,” she said. “It’s somewhat creating a kink in our process.”
Beaco called short-term rental regulations a “significant use that may need its own category.”
City attorney Ricardo Woods also suggested councilors wait to enact regulations until after the new zoning code is finalized. At that time, he said, the “technical professionals” could help find a solution and a new ordinance would not be based on an old law.
“If we’re drafting whatever we have based on an old ordinance … it’s going to make it tougher for you all from a policy standpoint,” he told councilors.
Andrew Thigpen, an Airbnb host living in Mobile and the de facto spokesperson for a group of short-term landlords in the city, told Lagniappe it’s a misconception hosts don’t pay city taxes. In fact, he said, Airbnb specifically takes taxes out and sends a check to the city each month.
Airbnb hosts have paid the city some $500,000 in the last “four or five years,” Thigpen said.
“We’re not against regulations; we just want it to be fair to us,” he said.
Thigpen said he understands the issue with the business licenses, but suggested the city begin issuing permits to get around the zoning issue.
Thigpen said the host group is against regulations that would bar future hosts from enjoying the same success they’ve had to this point.
Thigpen said he is pleased with the idea of a sort of short-term rental task force to look at the idea as the council slows down debate on it, but wants local hosts involved.
“We are happy that the council has not felt it needed to speed this up,” Thigpen said. “We’re OK with a task team as long as one of us can sit on it.”
Councilman Fred Richardson also called for local hosts to be involved going forward.
“We haven’t heard from the industry,” he said. “Why don’t we hear everyone out?”
Richardson said he’s also in favor of slowing down the debate.
“No one has given us a clear course to follow,” he said. “It’s going to come down to the council and we’re not ready to vote.”
Thigpen said his experience with Airbnb has been a successful one and he just wants that to continue.
“It has been successful in Mobile because we have mostly really good hosts,” he said.
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