Short Term Rentals (copy) (copy)

Short-term rentals have only been allowed in downtown Charleston's Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood, until now. Brad Nettles/Staff/File

A long line of little guys (and gals) queued up at the microphone last week to plead with City Council to protect their property rights and allow them to cash in on the Airbnb economy. It is the big guys you don’t see that you want to watch — if you can.

Charleston’s heated battle over short-term rentals is about little guys trying to make some extra dough to make ends meet, but it is also about global corporate giants pushing to expand the market. In Charleston, none of them has been more aggressive than HomeAway, which bills itself as the world leader in vacation rentals.

In the days before Monday’s public hearing at the Dock Street Theatre, HomeAway was working hard to turn out its side, sounding the alarm that only primary homes would be allowed as short-term rentals under the current proposal.

“Secondary whole-home vacation rentals are critical to Charleston’s tourism and lodging ecosystem, and provide critical revenue to our families and communities that help maintain them,” HomeAway’s government relations unit said in an email blast.

You have to admire the chutzpah of “our families.”

HomeAway is hardly part of the Charleston family. Based in Austin, Texas, this is a company with more than 2 million vacation rentals in 190 countries. Last year, it had revenue of $906 million, up 32 percent. HomeAway, in turn, is a unit of Expedia, the travel behemoth whose brands include, Trivago and Orbitz.

Short-term rental proponents like to make the hotels into the bogeyman, and they clearly have their own turf to protect. But companies like HomeAway and Airbnb take a backseat to no one.

As the proposed regulations moved from the Planning Commission to the City Council, HomeAway was dialing for support all around town. One South of Broad homeowner got two robocalls, followed by a real live body.

“Don’t you think it’s wrong for the City Council to take away people’s property rights,” the HomeAway caller asked?

No, she said. “I was pretty blunt. You picked the wrong person to call.”

The Battle for Charleston is playing out all over the country, all over the world, often pitting neighbor against neighbor. And, increasingly, local residents against absentee investors who see profits where the rest of us just see home.

HomeAway’s playbook is spelled out in the “Short-Term Rental Advocacy Center,” a slick website that provides guidance on how to “Become an Advocate” or to “Connect With Other Advocates.” Find allies state by state or city by city. In Charleston, that is the South Carolina Vacation Rental Management Association, which claims about 90 members.

If you couldn’t make last week’s public hearing, HomeAway’s government relations team provided a handy email all ready to go. Just add your City Council member’s name and email, include your name at the bottom and hit “send.” Mission accomplished.

“Vacation rentals have been part of Charleston’s identity for generations, and we must pass regulations that allow their benefits to continue to flourish,” the HomeAway email reads.

While no one from HomeAway spoke at the public hearing, its talking points were well represented by others.

HomeAway has lobbied members of the City Council and Planning Commission, but there is no way to know what it and others are spending. That is because South Carolina’s lobbying laws apply only to state government, not municipalities. The campaign over short-term rentals is a case study in why Charleston and other cities need their own lobbying rules.

Short-term rentals, officially illegal in most of the city, are effectively unregulated. There are an estimated 1,500 illegal rentals in Charleston, but who really knows? HomeAway alone lists more than 3,200 rentals in Charleston County.

In giving preliminary approval to regulations that the Short-Term Rental Task Force spent a year developing over the Planning Commission’s more permissive rules, City Council showed it is on the right track. But it’s a long way from here to there. And given the dynamics of this explosive industry — and the sheer money to be made — even the best of efforts can produce unintended consequences. That is why the city’s planning department is wise to recommend that any new rules be reviewed in a year.

There is much at stake. In a city like Charleston, where the tourists can easily overwhelm the locals, the short-term rental juggernaut is a cancer on our neighborhoods, threatening to drive up housing prices and replace our neighbors with an ever-changing cast of strangers.

Most of us don’t have well-financed government relations teams working for us. Instead, we have a mayor and City Council. We are counting on them to save our neighborhoods.

Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at Follow him