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Majority of Austin’s short-term rentals operating illegally

Wednesday, September 14, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

As the city struggles to enforce short-term rental regulations, a large majority of Austin’s STRs continue to operate illegally, according to a Sept. 6. presentation from the Code Department to the City Council Housing and Planning Committee.

There are anywhere between 9,000 and 11,000 STR listings in Austin, depending on the day, according to José Roig, director of the Code Department, but only around 2,000 of those are licensed.

What’s more, the number of licensed STRs has decreased in recent years. Before the pandemic, Austin had 3,000 licensed short-term rentals.

Roig said the decrease could be because people aren’t renewing their license annually like they’re supposed to. The city requires a license in part to better enforce code violations like noise complaints. 

A license costs $643 initially, and then $355 each year. The licensing fees cover the costs of administering the program, while money for enforcement comes from the city’s Clean Community Fee, a surcharge on city utility bills. 

Roig said that the owners of unlicensed STRs have become very savvy about evading city regulations by omitting exterior photos or other identifying information on online listings. This has led code enforcement officers “to become like a detective,” using photos or Google Earth to try to connect an online ad to an address to enforce a violation.

“Once we do that, we can identify the violation, but again, the moment they take that advertisement down and they change the link, then we lost that,” he said.

Some residents say STRs are hurting their quality of life. “We can’t call enough for the parties, the trash, the noise, etc.,” Deborah Blumentritt said. “It’s ruining our neighborhoods.” Edward Fudman, another resident, called for an immediate moratorium on STR licenses. 

Roig said that hosting platforms like Airbnb or Vrbo do not cooperate with the city’s enforcement efforts, and the city can only cite property owners, not the platforms.

Most code complaints, Roig added, are for non-licensed properties mainly in and around downtown and East Austin, where tourists are more likely to stay. The Code Department has six officers who enforce STR regulations and handle code violations. 

Council Member Kathie Tovo suggested City Council discuss the cost of enforcement during an executive session. Council members are also worried about the effect of STRs on the housing market. “We are in a housing crisis right now,” Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said, “and we need to ensure that our housing supply is kept available to our community who needs it.”

STRs (including unlicensed ones) make up between 2 and 2.5 percent of Austin’s housing stock, based on data from Roig’s report and the 2016-2020 American Community Survey’s estimate of the total housing units in the city. 

Amid the city’s attempt to regulate STRs, city officials are looking at how the Texas Legislature might intervene in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Brie Franco, the city’s intergovernmental affairs officer, said in a presentation that bills will likely be filed to prevent cities from regulating STRs at all. “I think we’re going to have another STR fight on our hands,” Franco said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to clarify that the Clean Community Fee appears on city utility bills.

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