As cities grapple with how to regulate short-term rental services like Airbnb, state legislation that would have reduced local control is getting a rewrite after pressure from Atlanta and Sandy Springs, among other jurisdictions.

House Bill 579, introduced last March, would have prohibited cities from banning short-term rentals and limited local regulations. In Sandy Springs, where leaders are considering a new regulatory system, the city’s top planning official called the bill “frightening” and “dangerous,” and the city of Atlanta says it is “actively monitoring” the bill to ensure local control.

The bill’s lead sponsor is Rep. Matt Dollar (R-Marietta), whose District 45 includes Sandy Springs’ northwest corner. He said the bill was a “conversation-starter” and is getting a rewrite.

State Rep. Matt Dollar.

“The new bill will look very different,” he said, and likely will propose different types of short-term rental regulations for different types of housing and areas.

That still leaves the big question of what those regulations will be, at both the state and local levels, where the issues are complicated and governments take varying approaches.

For cities like Atlanta, Brookhaven and Dunwoody, which largely address short-term rentals through hotel and bed-and-breakfast sections of their zoning codes, statewide legislation could alter the playing field.

“We are actively monitoring the bill and will work with our partners to ensure the city has the ability to locally legislate on the subject matter in the interests of the public health, safety and welfare,” said Alnissa Ruiz-Craig, a city of Atlanta spokesperson.

For Sandy Springs, timing could be important. The city just formally allowed short-term rentals to operate for the first time in its new zoning code, which went into effect late last year. Now it is considering ways to expand and refine regulations, possibly including a mandatory short-term rental registration system and the hiring of a company for $21,000 a year to keep track of them.

At the Jan. 2 Sandy Springs City Council meeting, Mayor Rusty Paul said such regulations have complexities the city is still considering.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said.

Dollar said that it remains to be seen whether any state law will be passed in what is expected to be a short legislative session. But some kind of legislative reckoning is likely coming, he said, “just like we did with Uber and all those other things. Technology is forcing us to address these questions.”

A mansion at 4205 Peachtree-Dunwoody Road in Buckhead as it appears in Airbnb listings that have drawn citations from the city of Atlanta, which the owner says are unfounded.

Short-term rentals, long-term concerns
Short-term rental services have become a booming — and controversial — business, allowing homeowners and apartment renters to make extra cash by arranging online room rentals. The current top dog is San Francisco-based Airbnb, which boasts millions of rental listings in nearly every country in the world. The service includes a listing, a payment service and a rating system.

Short-term rentals have been especially controversial in big cities, where they can act as significant competition with hotels while avoiding the same taxes and regulations. There are also concerns that short-term rentals inflate local housing markets, making it harder for long-term residents to afford housing. In 2014, the tourist-heavy city of Savannah, Ga., cracked down on short-term rentals as zoning violations.

Little attention has been drawn to short-term rentals in suburbs and outlying urban neighborhoods, where there likely aren’t such large-scale market impacts and homeowners can often rent with more privacy. But other concerns about short-term rentals are still possible, such as absentee owners, misbehaving guests or violations of condo rules.

Jim Tolbert, Sandy Springs’ assistant city manager in charge of planning, told his City Council that short-term rentals can bring in taxes and serve tourists on the positive side. But on the negative side, he added, they can “replace long-term residents and tenants,” “alter neighborhood character,” and create parking and safety problems.

Jim Tolbert, Sandy Springs’ assistant city manager for planning and neighborhood services.

Tolbert said that in November, he found 211 short-term rentals offered in Sandy Springs via 10 different online companies. In 2016, a Reporter Newspapers review of listings on the services Airbnb and Corporate Housing By Owner found dozens of local listings. Some of them were the type that concern city officials, such as a Buckhead “party house,” apartments being sub-rented against management’s rules, and a Perimeter Center condo that had served solely as a short-term rental investment property since 2010.

Certain properties have drawn city citations and neighborhood criticism in the past two years. A prominent example is a mansion at 4205 Peachtree-Dunwoody Road in Buckhead that drew criticism for hosting a concert without the owner’s knowledge, then received a cease-and-desist notice from the city after noise complaints, but remained in operation. Owner Paul McPherson said he was unfairly targeted for past or nonexistent issues.

In Brookhaven, where Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia Jr.’s father is a member of the City Council, a house at 1302 Brooklawn Road drew city Code Enforcement attention for allegedly serving as a full-time short-term rental property, which the owner has disputed.

The legislative debate
But those aren’t the only types of short-term rentals on the market in Georgia. Rep. Dollar notes that many “mom and pops” rent out beach houses, mountain cabins and lakeside properties around the state, which are accepted parts of local economies.

“Local governments are dealing with it in different ways,” amounting to a “big kind of hodgepodge,” Dollar said. The general intent of HB579, he said, is to reduce “uncertainty” for property owners and the short-term rental industry, and “level the playing field” with regular hotels and motels — and the taxes they are required to pay.

But Tolbert, the Sandy Springs planning chief, said the legislation was “frightening” and could be “taking my authority to deal with these folks away.”

He said the “most dangerous” part of the bill was that it would allow short-term rental companies to pay local hotel/motel taxes on behalf of their users without disclosing where exactly any of those properties are.

Tolbert and his staff are proposing several changes to the legislative proposal. Some ideas include: requiring a short-term rental property’s owner to live in the property the majority of the time; requiring a business license and posting of any city noise ordinance; and banning short-term rentals in subsidized housing units.

Those ideas dovetail with additions Tolbert suggests for the city code, such as requiring registration of all short-term rental properties, with “detailed records” provided to the city, and requiring all parking to be on-site.

Two other local state representatives, Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta) and Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs), said they have not taken a position on the legislation, but added that they have concerns.

“I am aware of a few homes here in my district that are the subject of a lot of neighbor concern,” said Beskin, who represents part of Buckhead.

“I’ve got a lot of questions,” said Silcox, including the bill’s exemptions for “private entities.”

Dollar said he has spoken briefly with Paul, the Sandy Springs mayor, about the issue. “I understand their position … Sandy Springs, it’s one of a handful [of cities] across the state that are addressing the short-term rental issue,” Dollar said.

“The takeaway is, I am working on new language and I am working with all interested parties,” he said.

– Evelyn Andrews and Dyana Bagby contributed

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.