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Code says STR licenses are a strain on staff

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Short-term rentals such as those listed on Airbnb and HomeAway are a hot-button issue in Austin, and the city is at work trying to fix the problems that residents have drawn attention to in the past several months. Austin Code Department staff has also identified problems, not the least of which is a shortage of staff available to process incoming short-term rental license applications.

“For processing licenses, the intake for one person to do it is significant,” Austin Code Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Ballone told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday.

“We have some (temporary employees) working now, but, again, three people processing these licenses is very, very challenging for us, particularly when you get an influx during the big events like (the Formula One United States Grand Prix) and (Austin City Limits) and South by Southwest,” Ballone said. “So there is definitely a staffing challenge right now.”

The issue came to a head recently when a few citizens expressed frustration about the fact that city staff invited Austin Rental Alliance President Joel Rasmussen – who operates short-term rentals in Austin – to speak during a Code Industry Summit that the city hosted on Oct. 1 and 2.

Rather than allow the controversy to overshadow the event, Ballone said, staff decided to limit the speakers to code professionals.

With the outrage, however, came the revelation that, according to Ballone, four of Rasmussen’s short-term rental licenses were still “pending renewal.” This means that, though Rasmussen had applied for the renewals in December 2014, they were still pending and had not been renewed by the time their expiration dates passed in February and June of this year.

Through a public information request, the Monitor found that resident Tracy Smith sent City Council Member Leslie Pool an email on Sept. 21 stating that Rasmussen had “9 expired STR permits” and calling him “an example of a ‘bad actor’” when it comes to short-term rentals.

Amy Smith, Pool’s chief of staff, forwarded the email to Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano on Sept. 22, requesting an explanation of the issue and prompting the discovery of the four short-term rental licenses that Ballone said were pending.

“I’m not exactly sure, I cannot speak, honestly, to where citizens got into an uproar,” Ballone said. “They were saying that he had all these expired licenses, and we went back and reviewed, and we found this pending issue, and that’s where we found this drama to lie.” She added that Rasmussen was not at fault and that staff does not regard him as a “bad actor.”

Ballone explained what happened from Code Department staff’s vantage point.

“Some of (Rasmussen’s) properties that he went for renewal went right through. A few of the properties were held in a pending status,” she said. The delay, she explained, was due to a pending permit issue – that Code Department staff did not follow up on – with what was, at the time, the Planning and Development Review Department.

“(Rasmussen) was communicating with a temporary staff member who immediately left – just left the building and didn’t share information that there was some pending process. … Joel thought we were working on it; we thought Joel was working on it with this permit,” Ballone continued.

“When he finally got some of his renewals back, he noticed that he had been missing (some), and so he followed up with us, with our full-time staffer, who had taken over the entire workload, and everything went through,” Ballone continued. “It was a miscommunication based on the fact that we lost a staff member in the middle of a big process.”

In an interview with the Monitor on Tuesday, Rasmussen said that the issue related to the fact that eight of his short-term rental applications apply to duplexes, and staff had only processed renewals for one unit in each duplex.

An email from Code Department Performance Consultant Lia Warner-Lira that the Monitor uncovered in a public information request indicates that Rasmussen’s licenses for four units in four duplexes had not been renewed by their expiration date.

Rasmussen said that he continued to operate his short-term rentals because he was unaware of the issue. “We had no idea that one half of each (duplex) was considered to be expired,” he said. “I didn’t discover that until I finally physically got the copies of the licenses in September.”

Ballone said that the Code Department staffer in charge of the renewals – Administrative Specialist Viola Ruiz – now has two full-time temporary staff members working with her on processing applications.

The Rasmussen issue, Ballone said, indicates the challenges that Code Department staff still faces in processing short-term renewal applications. “It’s a very minute piece of the actual issue, which is the understaffing and the general challenges with short-term rentals,” she said.

Aside from being understaffed, Ballone said that the department still does not have an online system for accepting short-term rental and renewal applications, making the administrative process cumbersome.

“When we’re doing a lot of the manual stuff – when there’s a lot of paperwork coming in and we’re doing it all without much digitized work, we have to do a lot of manual labor – sometimes those things occur,” Ballone said.

Processing of license and renewal applications is only one of the many issues that Council and staff are attempting to address when it comes to the city’s short-term rental regulations. Council is currently working on a resolution, which is on Thursday’s agenda, intended to give Code Department staff more effective tools to enforce City Code and put a stop to “bad actors.”

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