Laws restricting short-term rentals protect our quality of life

The beer pong started at 10 a.m. In my neighborhood in south-central Austin, this is the new normal. Ubers drop off people with wheeled suitcases and they check into one of seven short-term rentals (STRs) I can see from the front of my house. Most of these rentals are what the City of Austin has termed “Type 2,” residences that have no residents, only visitors staying for a night or a weekend or sometimes a few days longer.

I call it the hotel next door, the place a vacationer reviewed on an STR site as “a great spot for a larger party of guys or girls looking to party and have some fun.” On this particular Saturday morning, that meant eight men lining up red Solo cups of beer and hollering as they tried to land a ping pong ball in them.

The City of Austin has fought to create and maintain fair ordinances that allow visitors to rent homes to enjoy the city while also protecting the quality of life its permanent residents. It has piloted a code restricting the number of Type 2 rentals allowed in any one area with a plan to phase out this type of rental by 2022. This code would keep situations like the one in my neighborhood from happening.

However, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, backed by Attorney General Ken Paxton, filed a lawsuit to overturn the ordinance. So far, they are winning. They argue that a vacationer is making residential use of a property just like any other resident. Perhaps the courts will continue to find that this is true in theory. But in practice, it couldn’t be more different. Come to my neighborhood and I will show you the reality we now live with.

Several houses on my street have never had a full-time resident. They were built when older homes were knocked down or on vacant lots and immediately set up as short-term rentals. When we toured the open house for a new place a few doors away, a pricey house perched over I-35, the realtor told us, “You could buy this house to rent short-term. I know people who have made $90,000 a year renting theirs.” She suggested we could rent our own house for a lot of money too.

“But this is where we live,” I said. “This is my home.”

When we bought our 1946 house thirteen years ago, we were only the fourth family to own it. The people we bought the house from had lived there for 35 years, long enough that their daughter-in-law had stayed with them while her husband—their son—served in Vietnam. It was a stable house in a stable neighborhood, one where so few homes were put up for sale that it was difficult to find “comps” to price the property.

A lot has changed since then. Historic homes have been demolished, enormous new structures erected. Each time the construction began we imagined new neighbors, a deepening connection with the area we’d chosen to live in. Repeatedly we discovered that we wouldn’t have neighbors at all. We’d have tourists. The garbage from their weekend stays would overflow the pails.

As the beer pong accelerates, so does the noise. Eight drunk men are loud. And profane. If I had young children, I’d keep them away from the windows. If I’d planned to spend time working in my yard, I’d reconsider. I wouldn’t want to work alone in view of a crowd of inebriated young men. Is this “incompatible with residential neighborhoods,” as the City of Austin argued in proposing its new code? The view from my house says yes, absolutely.

I don’t expect to live in the Austin I moved to almost 20 years ago. I understand that just as people change, neighborhoods and cities change. But I expect my local elected officials to have the power to protect the quality of life of their constituents. I expect the laws they enact through careful consideration to stand. When I go to the polls to vote — for city council, for mayor, for fingerprinting applicants who drive for Uber — I expect my vote to count.

The good news is that the beer-pongers will be gone by Sunday evening. Unfortunately, the next group has already made its reservation and is preparing for its party.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation and Uber have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

Vivé Griffith

Writer and educator