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Committee forwards short-term rental changes to Council

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Testimony stretched for more than four hours.

Members of the City Council Planning and Neighborhoods Committee dug into the first public hearing Monday on more than a dozen recommendations made by Council Member Sheri Gallo about how the city should amend its short-term rental regulations.

At the end of a marathon meeting that closed early Tuesday morning, committee members forwarded six recommendations onto the whole Council for consideration at its Thursday meeting – leaving five of Gallo’s recommendations for the committee’s September meeting.

Members of the committee zeroed in on the issue of overoccupancy in short-term rental properties. Current city code caps the number of unrelated adults living in a short-term rental at six, but the Code Department has said time and again that renters claim blood relation, and the city has no easy way of proving otherwise.

“I think the number of occupants is probably the biggest issue that we have with short-term rentals that are not operating in compliance and that are very negative to the neighborhoods,” said Gallo.

Among the six regulations they forwarded to the full Council, committee members recommended changing the code to read simply “six adults,” nullifying family relation as an easy way out for renters abiding illegally.

“Six still allows three couples and maybe two kids per,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. “That’s a pretty good size. What you got here would allow for most families to come and stay.”

Out in the sea of audience members, stickers worn on blazers and signs positioned on laps made clear two opposing camps in City Hall chambers Monday. Those who opposed changing current code wore white stickers emblazoned with the phrase, “STR Regs that WORK.” Signs cradled by those supporting reform of short-term rental code read, “Keep the Neighbor in our Neighborhood!”

Both groups did appear to agree on two things: that the city has short-term rental owners who are acting outside the law and that some sort of change is needed. But they tussled over whether the change should come from amending city code or further empowering the Code Department to enforce existing rules.

Resident Kristen Hotopp testified to 20-person bachelor parties happening at a short-term rental home in her neighborhood near Rainey Street. She presented to committee members pictures of the rental home listing, including screenshots of at least three bedrooms, some with bunk beds that allowed them to sleep six people.

“Everything folds out to a couch,” Hotopp said. “My neighbors and I, we like to joke that the fridge itself folds out into a bed. I mean, this guy’s packing them in there.”

The argument made by Ellen Bell, who identified herself as a former Austin Independent School District principal, typified those made by many short-term rental owners who showed up to Monday’s hearing: These code changes are being proposed because of bad players, and good players should not be punished in the wake.

“Many of our guests are grandparents here for a grandchild’s birthday, they are retirees building a house in Austin, they are proud parents attending university graduation, business people and people who just want to explore Austin for the weekend,” she said. “They’re kind of the opposite of partygoers.”

Despite adjourning just before 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, members tabled several of Gallo’s recommendations for their September meeting, along with several amendments proposed by Tovo. At its Thursday meeting, Council will consider those six recommendations approved by the committee.

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