Short-term rentals (copy) (copy)

Airbnb

The rise of short-term rentals over the past decade has blurred the lines between housing and lodging, posing a unique challenge for local governments around the world.

Not long ago, zoning rules were enough to regulate vacation rentals in of residential neighborhoods, which made it easy to tax and regulate them differently than housing. But short-term rentals have forced cities to come up with different approaches, as online listing services such as Airbnb have made it easier and more profitable than ever for homeowners to rent their homes or spare bedrooms to visitors.

The need for new regulations was especially clear in Garden City, Utah, a small community on Bear Lake known primarily as a summer vacation destination. When former Mayor John Spuhler was elected in 2010, he noticed that most homes were not owner-occupied: Only about 850 residents lived there year-round. 

In the summer months, the population swelled dramatically to about 25,000 people, and it was well-known among residents that many of them were staying in short-term rentals.

While the city had passed an ordinance to regulate them, the online booking platforms made it difficult for officials to figure out which ones were licensed to host paying guests and which ones were operating outside the rules.

"I didn't realize people were going to say, 'You know what? We're not going to follow your rules. We're going to do it our way,'" Spuhler said. "We were losing revenues. We were having problems with noise, parking and trash. And we wanted to get to the data of what was actually happening with short-term rentals."

Spuhler previously worked in the emerging data technology field in Denver and had founded one of the area's largest data storage centers. In his new role as mayor of Garden City, those skills came in handy.

Working with the city manager, who also happened to be a tech industry veteran, Spuhler designed new software to monitor short-term rental activity and make sure the properties listed for rent online were complying with the local rules. 

It was such a success in Garden City, it was used to model STR Software, the tracking software now used in more than 70 municipalities nationwide, including the city of Charleston, Charleston County and Folly Beach. 

In the city of Charleston, it took an 18-member task force about a year to draft a new ordinance regulating short-term rentals. Now, the challenge is to make sure it's followed. 

The city began enforcing the new rules on July 10, and the livability enforcement officers are using STR Helper to find out which ones might not be in compliance.

Years ago, it used to take days or even weeks to figure out whether a short-term rental was legal. With the new software, it's a matter of hours, according to Dan Riccio, livability and tourism director.

"The software is really easy to understand, and it’s easy to navigate," he said.

The city and county share jurisdiction in places like Johns Island, James Island and West Ashley — and they have different short-term rental rules. But using the same software will make it easier for the two governments to coordinate enforcement, Riccio said. 

"We’re on the same page, and that’s a huge hurdle to get over because this is a countywide problem," he said, "and the only way to combat it is to join forces."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.