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Code working weekends on STR problems

Monday, July 13, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Members of Austin’s Code Compliance Department are working overtime on weekends trying to deal with complaints about short-term rental properties that are making life unpleasant for people in surrounding neighborhoods.

However, a memo from department Director Carl Smart shows a great deal of effort resulting in little enforcement.

According to Smart, during the first weekend of an enhanced enforcement pilot program, July 3–5, the Austin Code team received 26 calls from 311 “and performed 51 inspections, 12 of which were proactive. Concerned residents reported the following complaints to Austin 311: noise, overoccupancy, trash/debris, illegal parking, suspected illegal activity and operating without a STR license.”

As a result of those inspections, Smart wrote, three properties were given notices of violation because they were operating without a license, and there were two enforcement meetings scheduled related to overoccupancy at three different properties. Department spokesperson Jacqueline Ballone described enforcement meetings as a dialogue about occupancy “and possibly enforcement actions.”

There was also one verbal warning about too much noise, and inspectors were denied entry at two properties.

The pilot project will continue on weekends throughout the month of July. City Manager Marc Ott is scheduled to report his findings and recommendations to City Council on how to improve enforcement on Aug. 13, according to a newsletter from Council Member Sheri Gallo to her District 10 constituents.

Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, believes that enhanced enforcement is not going to result in any real change. Ingle said Sunday, “The penalties aren’t real, so there’s always going to be a problem with the STRs.

“If we had a real way of enforcing (the regulations) with a penalty that meant something, these owners would actually get the message. But these inspections … it’s a bunch of bull. I’ve sat through some meetings with (code compliance officers), and when (they) were asked how many licenses have you suspended, the answer was zero.”

Ingle said she is sympathetic with those trying to enforce the law. In order to get some real teeth into the ordinance, she said, it needs to be linked to something like the Land Development Code. That would take Council action.

Ballone agrees, noting that “part of the challenge for us is we still don’t have teeth in the ordinance.” She said Austin Code is hopeful that with more publicity about the pilot program, there will be more calls to 311 when illegal activities are occurring on the weekend. In the past, there was no investigation over weekends, and by the time code officers arrived on the scene, for example, the 40 people who might have been partying on Saturday night were all gone.

Ballone said the department has a list of some of the properties generating the most complaints, and those are among the ones receiving visits from the compliance team on the weekends. She said she was not able to provide the addresses of the properties inspected, but generally they were on the east side of town and in District 9.

According to Gallo’s newsletter, two of the properties visited over the Fourth of July weekend were in District 10, one on Mesa Drive and one on Cat Mountain Drive.

A report for the first quarter of 2015 shows that District 9 has more than twice as many STRs as any other Council district, and owner-occupied STRs far outweigh other types. The district is home to the University of Texas and neighborhoods north of it as well as the Bouldin and Travis Heights neighborhoods in South Austin. In terms of the number of registered short-term rentals, District 5 comes in second, followed by District 3, with Districts 1 and 10 coming in fourth and fifth, followed by District 7. Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8 have very few. To see the report, click here.

Ballone said a new report is expected this week.

In her newsletter, Gallo told constituents that it is very important to share “your particular experience with a noncomplying short-term rental in your neighborhood. Also provide specific recommendations on how the city can better enforce city code requirements for short-term rentals.” She urged those bothered by short-term rentals to contact the city manager, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano and Smart with their comments through July 17.

Video still courtesy of the city of Austin.

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