This commentary was originally featured in The Texas Tribune on December 15, 2017.
As with any human endeavor, there will always be some bad actor out there that can provide fodder for anecdotal reports. But we don’t base public policy on anecdotes, we base it on facts — particularly when constitutional rights are at stake.
In a recent op-ed in TribTalk, Vivé Griffith wrote an impassioned defense of Austin’s short-term rental ordinance based upon her personal experiences. The author painted a lurid picture of how short-term rentals have allegedly turned her once-sleepy neighborhood into a frat-party nightmare where she observes debauchery from no less than seven short-term rentals from her front porch, beer pong starting at 10 a.m. and trash flowing into the streets.
But facts are stubborn things. The city’s records on short-term rental ownership and complaints specific to her street and neighborhood don’t match the author’s story. According to city records, there are only three licensed short-term rentals on the author’s street, not the seven she claims to see “from the front of [her] house.” Her entire neighborhood has only six licensed short-term rentals, and most are owner occupied. From 2012 to 2016, none received a nuisance complaint, let alone a citation. If the short-term rentals on her street are a problem, she’s never reported the fact to the City of Austin during this period.
The city’s data on complaints about short-term rentals within Austin contradicts the recent TribTalk essay. In Austin, any time a citizen calls 311 or 911 and complains about a short-term rental, it is coded as a short-term rental complaint. In the four years prior to the adoption of the city’s current ordinance, Austin issued zero citations against any licensed short-term rental owner or guest for violating the city’s noise, trash or parking ordinances. The city’s own study showed that short-term rentals produce fewer disturbance complaints than their long-term neighbors. Prior to adoption of the current ordinance, Type 2 short-term rentals, of which the author complains, accounted for a total of 23 noise and parking complaints citywide over a three-year period. To put that number in perspective, residential properties in Austin produce more than 17,000 code complaints a year.
Even if her story were true, it would not justify Austin’s current short-term rental ordinance. In 2016, Austin passed one of the strictest ordinances in the country, under which more than 200 homeowners, some of whom have used their homes as short-term rentals for generations, will lose the right to rent their homes out for periods of less than 30 consecutive days. Some homeowners will be allowed to continue to rent their homes for short periods, provided that no more than six adults are present on the property, every guest is in bed asleep by 10 p.m. and the guests agree to submit to warrantless searches at virtually any time. (The ordinance specifically calls out group activities “other than sleeping.” In court, the city has not challenged our interpretation of that part of the ordinance.)
The disruptive behavior this Austinite complains of is equally possible at long-term rentals and, more importantly, is already illegal. That the city does not have code compliance staff on call in the evenings to respond to actual disturbances does not justify punishing the majority of short-term rental owners and guests that are peaceful, good actors. The city does not have to eliminate well-established property rights, arbitrarily regulate who can be inside a home, set an adult bedtime or search houses without a warrant in order to police public disturbances. It simply has to enforce the public disturbance laws that are already on the books.
The Texas Constitution requires that restrictions on individual liberty and private property rights be justified by actual evidence of public harm and not be unduly burdensome given the real world public harm at stake. The overwhelming and uncontested hard evidence in the current Texas Public Policy Foundation-led lawsuit challenging Austin’s ordinance shows that, on the whole, short-term rentals are not generating the types of problems about which the previous column's author complains. The fact that she may (or may not) have noisy neighbors is not a sufficient reason to carpet bomb the constitutional rights of hundreds of law-abiding owners and guests who have never received a complaint.
Let’s base policymaking on actual data, not fictional exaggerations.