It’s a curious contrast; the city of Austin is cracking down on short-term rental operators—ostensibly over nuisance and livability issues—while at the same time legalizing camping by the homeless throughout the city (with the exception of City Hall). The city is outlawing STRs because they might be “detrimental to the character of Austin neighborhoods.” But homeless encampments are fine.
In 2015, Ahmad and Marwa Zaatari fell on hard times. Rather than sell their home, they moved into a cheaper apartment and began renting their home out as a short-term rental (a home rented for less than 30 days as defined by the city of Austin).
Like most licensed short-term rental operators, the Zaataris have never had a complaint made to the city. But for the last three years, Austin has been trying to shut folks like the Zaataris down. Under Austin’s STR Ordinance, adopted in 2016, the Zaataris will no longer be able to use their home as a short-term rental after 2022. In the meantime, the Zaataris guests must by law submit to warrantless searches and a 10 p.m. curfew.
The Zaataris have sued the city over the constitutionality of the STR ordinance (it’s been pending since May 2018 before the Third Court of Appeals). In its response to the lawsuit, Austin argues that its extreme regulations are justified because short-term rentals are a “public nuisance” that is detrimental to the “character of Austin neighborhoods”—never mind the fact that Austin’s own study prior to adopting its ordinance showed that licensed short-term rentals generated fewer public disturbance complaints than their long-term neighbors.
But Austin’s commitment to nuisance prevention and “neighborhood character” is strangely short-term rental specific. In June, Austin passed an ordinance allowing the homeless to camp on sidewalks and other public spaces regardless of its public impact.
So to sum up, if you want to rent your home out for less than 30 days, or rent a house for just a weekend, Austin will come down on you with the full force of its regulatory power. But if a person wants to set up camp on the sidewalk in front of that home, Austin’s ordinances allow it.
In addition, the STR ordinance requires the Zaataris’ guests to submit to warrantless searches, be in bed by 10 p.m., and never gather in a group outside or inside the home in numbers greater than six. Any violation of the STR ordinance is a crime.
Regardless of the virtue or wisdom of allowing individuals to camp on public sidewalks, such campsites obviously can cause real health and safety concerns. In addition to obstructing walkways and entrances, sidewalk tents are not equipped with restrooms or running water. And no one who has visited downtown Austin recently, or any other city that has chosen to allow homeless encampments, could dispute that those encampments affect “neighborhood character.”
Austin’s conscious decision to prevent its police from doing anything to stop that activity shows that concerns about actual public nuisances have no bearing on Austin’s decision process. In the city’s eyes, concerns about nuisance and “neighborhood character” were sufficient to pass a short-term rental ordinance that violates fundamental constitutional rights by telling two adults that they cannot be on the couch watching T.V. at a short term rental after 10 p.m. (that’s not hyperbole—the city admitted that is the effect of its ordinance). But those concerns were not enough to tell individuals that they can’t camp on a sidewalk, where they have no constitutional right to sleep in the first place. The fact that the Austin cares about the former and not the latter, shows that the STR ordinance was never really about nuisance abatement in the first place.
For the Zaataris, this isn’t surprising—they’ve always known that the STR Ordinance was more about virtue signaling and pandering to certain powerful constituents than it was about addressing actual nuisances. But if anyone needs any additional evidence that Austin doesn’t actually care all that much about public nuisances, its recent homeless camping ordinance ought to provide all the evidence they need.