A new set of rules that would allow short-term rentals across Charleston for the first time won initial approval Monday.
After an hour-long public hearing and another hour of debate, City Council voted 11-2 in favor of the proposed ordinance that the Short-Term Rental Task Force spent months deliberating last year. Its proposal was stricter than the version the Planning Commission recommended last month.
The main difference was that the task force's policy prevents whole-house rentals by requiring owners to be on their property while hosting guests. The Planning Commission wanted to allow them for up to 72 days a year.
Many downtown neighborhood leaders and historic preservationists said they preferred the task force's version because they felt whole-house rentals would turn neighborhoods into de facto hotel districts.
"I, as a resident, have the right to live in a neighborhood," said Anna Bradley, who lives in the peninsula's North Central neighborhood.
Real estate professionals, property managers and short-term rental operators opposed the measure and asked council to defer its decision to learn more about the industry.
"These are some of the strictest regulations, if they were to pass, of any city," said Alex Walker of James Island. "They are not a progressive approach."
Others said they supported the whole-house rental ban because it would help protect the housing stock available to long-term renters.
Council members Robert Mitchell and James Lewis agreed with that sentiment but voted against it after pushing to defer the decision. They wondered if the city could enforce the new rules.
"I don't believe it's going to work," Mitchell said. "I don't believe we're going to have the enforcement."
Seekings said they were missing the point.
"The reason Lewis wants to defer is the same reason I want to approve it," he said. "Let’s give this first reading and give our staff a chance to show this works."
The work to ensure the regulations are enforceable will continue. City Council plans to meet next month to fine-tune the details before adopting the ordinance.
Currently, short-term rentals, such as Airbnb and HomeAway, are legal only in commercial properties in the Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood. The rules for that neighborhood would not change.
The existing ban on short-term rentals elsewhere has been loosely enforced, primarily because the rules now make it especially difficult for the city to prosecute violators, according to Livability Director Dan Riccio.
The new ordinance creates separate rules for three different "classes." The rules are most lenient in suburban areas such as Daniel Island, James Island, Johns Island, West Ashley and the upper Peninsula. The restrictions are tighter in downtown Charleston.
Across the city, short-term rental operators would have to go through an approvals process to obtain a short-term rental zoning permit at the city's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.
The city's registration number would have to be included on each listing on any online booking service such as Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and the like. The permit would have to be renewed annually, and any operators who break the rules wouldn't be able to renew their licenses for two years.
Class 1 encompasses the city's Old & Historic District, the peninsular area generally south of Mary and Morris streets. There, only homes on the National Register of Historic Places qualify for a short-term rental.
Class 2 would include properties primarily in the mid-peninsula area that lie within the Old City District but outside Cannonborough-Elliottborough's short-term rental overlay zone.
Class 3 would encompass the rest of the city, including neighborhoods above the Crosstown, as well as those in West Ashley, James Island, Johns Island and Daniel Island.
City Council hasn't decided if Class 3 properties should have an age requirement on properties.
The task force recommended that they be at least 50 years old, to keep property owners from building new units specifically for short-term rentals. The planning commission changed the limit to five years, but Councilman Gary White said even that might unfairly eliminate many homes in recently developed areas like Cainhoy and Daniel Island.