To Airbnb or Not to Airbnb?
For the past several months, Kansas City’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee has been considering regulations relating to short-term rentals (STRs), such as those offered through the Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) platforms. This is the next go-round with regulation of the so-called sharing economy after the Council’s long struggle with ride sharing or transportation networking companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft.
STRs are nothing new—they’ve been around forever. What is new, however, are the internet platforms that have made finding and booking them so easy. As a result, the numbers have increased dramatically and cities are considering how and whether to regulate them.
In Missouri, that regulation has ranged from outright bans in some cities around Saint Louis and in Kansas City to no regulation at all. Springfield recently debated such regulation, and in a news story about them, one proponent of regulation said, “we need to protect the character of our neighborhoods.” Such a vague standard should be of concern for property owners and property rights advocates. Cities already have criminal codes and housing codes to address public safety. But there is no research that I have been able to find that purports to show that STRs increase crime. Quite the opposite, research has demonstrated that STRs increase property values in the surrounding area.
At a recent Southern Communities neighborhood meeting, a representative of the City Planning and Development Department told attendees that they had received hundreds of complaints about STRs. But the hundreds of complaints turned out to be 68 complaints going back to 2014. Fifty-four of the complaints simply noted that the location is being used for Airbnb or a STR, as opposed to noise or safety complaints, for example. (While STRs are technically illegal in Kansas City, the city has not been enforcing the law, instead seeking to come up with regulations allowing the practice.)
Meanwhile, thousands of properties are being rented out in Kansas City for long-term rentals. They are not inspected or regulated by the city. They are not limited by zoning nor do they require that neighbors approve or even be notified of it. They are not assessed at commercial property tax rates. It’s fair to wonder why the city would treat a property that rents out for 3 days at a time differently than it treats one that rents out for 3 months at a time.
Then there are taxes. Kansas City charges a convention and tourism tax of 7.5% on hotels. It seems reasonable that STRs should pay this too. Again, long-term renters do not pay this, so the city will have to establish some sort of defensible threshold between long-term and short-term rentals. And don’t forget about bed-and-breakfasts. They are regulated differently, and maybe they shouldn’t be.
Some neighborhoods want to maintain a total ban on STRs. An ordinance being considered by the Council would render about 80 percent of city residences ineligible for any kind of STR. Is that fair? Or even legal? One Constitutional law professor at UMKC says it is not.
Given the different approaches to these matters across Missouri, it seems likely that the matter will end up before the General Assembly, as was the case with ride-sharing. Rather than creating a new patchwork of regulations, taxes, and fees, legislators need to think broadly about how private property ought to be regulated. The sharing economy is blurring the lines between personal and business, residential and commercial. We should be prepared for a larger discussion.