Short Term Rentals (copy)

A man walks down a Spring Street sidewalk, near St. Philip Street Tuesday, December 12, 2017. Brad Nettles/Staff

Either 1.5 million more tourists visited Charleston in 2017 than during the previous year, or the area’s short-term rental boom is as massive and impactful as critics have asserted. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

After all, the solar eclipse in August brought in huge crowds, with almost every hotel in the region booked solid. Last winter was also unusually warm, the summer unusually mild, and several hundred new hotel rooms were added in Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

But the numbers are striking. About 6.9 million people visited Charleston last year, according to the College of Charleston Office of Tourism Analysis. That’s a 27 percent increase over the previous year — a jump probably too large to explain as simply an increase in traveler interest.

The full report hasn’t been released, but much of the shift appears to be due to better reporting of short-term rentals and beach home stays.

There are at least 3,500 whole-home short-term rentals available in Charleston County alone. Nearly all of the whole-home rentals within Charleston city limits are illegal under current zoning rules, and all of them would become illegal under a new ordinance that City Council gave initial approval to last month.

Assuming a modest rate of occupancy and a few guests per stay, those properties could more than account for the 1.5 million visitor jump, offering a critical glimpse into just how significant the short-term rental industry has become.

Obviously, mixing so many guests into residential neighborhoods has created some frustrations for long-term residents over things like parking, noise and security. And with a constantly shifting stream of visitors, neighbors are forced to address nuisances over and over again.

Then there’s the impact on housing affordability. Short-term rental advocates say whole-home rentals account for too small of a portion of the housing market to have a significant impact on pricing. That doesn’t seems to be the case in Charleston.

Freeing up 3,500 short-term rental properties — which, again, are just in Charleston County — to homebuyers or long-term tenants would increase the number of properties available on the larger regional housing market by as much as 70 percent.

That matters. In terms of the ratio between home prices and household incomes, the Charleston area faces one of the tighter housing markets in the country. Despite frustration with overdevelopment, home construction has generally not kept up with demand.

It’s especially difficult to find affordable housing on or near the Charleston peninsula, which is also the area with the highest concentration of short-term rental properties. Pushing long-term residents farther out into the suburbs exacerbates traffic congestion, parking problems and a host of other livability issues.

“This number is meant to help planning and development,” explained Wayne Smith, chair of the College of Charleston Department of Hospitality and

Tourism Management. “People can discuss this number to figure out what’s best for the community.”

At least one thing is clear. Charleston needs the tougher, more enforceable rules on short-term rentals that City Council approved last month. Other municipalities in the region will have to follow suit or face their own onslaught of rentals. County governments need to provide strong protections for unincorporated urbanized areas in their respective jurisdictions.

Charleston can accommodate plenty of visitors responsibly and sustainably. Indeed, it’s crucial for the regional economy. But tourism shouldn’t come at the expense of livability and the well-being of long-term residents.