Booze, noise, trash, party houses: One Texas city's struggle with Airbnb, VRBO

A month ago, the Arlington City Council appeared poised to regulate vacation rentals like Airbnb and VRBO.

Now? It's a little murky.

In recent discussions, the City Council has agreed something needs to be done, but it has proven to be a little difficult to decide what to do.

"There is nothing simple about this," said Mayor Jeff Williams at the May 22 meeting. "It is very, very complicated."

It's an issue that has been taken up not just in Arlington but all over the United States.

In Baltimore, the City Council is also considering regulating vacation rentals, which are also known as short-term rentals.

In Miami Beach, code enforcement officers patrol residential areas for illegal vacation rentals.

And in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune bemoaned short-term rentals fundamentally changing the character of historic areas like Treme, which is considered the oldest African-American neighborhood in the U.S.

Arlington has been debating the short-term rentals for some time. A short-term rental is typically defined as 30 or fewer days.

The city has already held town hall meetings where residents have complained that party houses pop up and cause problems with noise, alcohol and parking. Once the guests depart, they often leave behind bags of trash that sit at the curb for days before being picked up, neighbors say.

On the other side of the issue, there are short-term rental owners who say party houses are the exception to the rule and that the rentals provide a service in a popular tourist city where many younger guests have no desire to stay in a hotel. They don't feel the city has really studied the benefits.

City Councilwoman Victoria Farrar-Myers has wrestled with how the city would enforce any regulation once it passes.

"I think there are certain neighborhoods we need to protect and we have come to that realization," Farrar-Myers said.

But she doesn't believe an outright ban will work.

"A ban could drive it underground like we've seen in Fort Worth," said Farrar-Myers, where residents can apply for a special exemption to run a bed-and-breakfast. A search of Airbnb could find 179 listings in Fort Worth while a search of VRBO found 62 available for this past weekend.

Complicating matters is the concern that the Texas Legislature could take up the issue again next year.

During the last session, State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, filed SB 451, which would have prevented cities from regulating short-term rentals. That bill died in a conference committee.

Hancock, who could not be reached for comment, has not said whether he will file similar legislation next year.

Another wrinkle emerged last week when the Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion in favor of a San Antonio homeowner who used his house as a short-term rental after he moved to Houston in a job transfer.

There is also a lawsuit against the City of Austin over its short-term rental ordinance that has been framed as a debate over private property rights.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have urged an appeals court to take up the issue after a lower court sided with Austin.

A Texas Public Policy Foundation attorney representing a group of Austin short-term rental owners as well as customers told the Texas Tribune last week that the unanimous Supreme Court ruling bolsters their lawsuit.

"The Supreme Court got it right," attorney Rob Henneke told the Tribune. "This is a decision affirming private property rights."

It's too early to say whether the state Supreme Court ruling will affect other cities like Arlington.

But Arlington's newest City Council member, Helen Moise, is convinced regulations will get passed. She represents north Arlington and the entertainment district, which have seen the biggest impact from short-term rentals.

"We will still find a way to address this," Moise said. "There are going to be adjustments over time, especially if the Texas Legislature takes this up again, and we'll also have to take this newest legal case into consideration."

The city's survey by Host Compliance found there were 284 unique properties but 409 vacation rental listings (meaning some were shown on multiple sites) in the city, mostly in north Arlington and the entertainment district. The entertainment district includes AT&T Stadium, Globe Life Park and Six Flags Over Texas. But vacation rentals were present throughout the city.

City Councilman Robert Shepard said something needs to be done on short-term rentals. During council discussions, Shepard has said he favors allowing short-term rentals with strong regulations.

"I'm kind of reserving my opinion, my judgment until the council reaches some kind of consensus," Shepard said.

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna
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