Asheville – Buncombe County’s planning department is in the process of amending its development ordinances. Citing the county’s comprehensive plan as the source for their marching orders, the planning department selected about a dozen hot topics, grouped them into modules, and elected to make changes to the way the county handles short-term rentals (STRs) first.
Along with “meetings about meetings” talk, board members heard that “research” and “drafting and review” had been completed for the first module. Buncombe County would be a pioneer in the field, as only cities in the state, not counties, had imposed regulations on short-term rentals.
The presentation was triggering for anybody believing in the Protestant ethic of working hard to have enough to provide for one’s family and contribute to the community. STRs were causing more trouble than a pool hall in River City, and even more trouble than kids in their Antifa costumes communicating threats and marching and marauding. STRs were misappropriating affordable housing and in need of immediate regulation.
A summary of proposed text amendments appears in the sidebar. The proposals are arbitrary enough to sound like pure hassling. Furthermore, it was explicitly uncertain whether staff intended to put all short-term rentals under the regulations or create subclasses for short-term rentals and call some by another name, such as homestays. The confusion helped to keep anybody even thinking about booking their existing STR off balance. For example, what does “change the definition of short-term rental to allow only single-family detached units to be rented short-term” mean? Defining “detached,” by the way, remains on the county’s to-do list.
One proposed amendment would further limit the size of STRs, as if McMansions would make great affordable housing units. Other new restrictions would allow STRs to be grandfathered in only as a nonconforming use that would require a permit and terminate upon deed transfer or failure to rent at least two nights every 180 days. Staff spoke rosily of providing options when they were, in fact, limiting them. They wanted to change “available” housing into long-term affordable rentals, even if the availability was contingent on bankrupting an owner dependent on his STR income. As usual, the supply side was not a consideration in government discussions.
The county did, however, perform an equity analysis. Planning Director Nate Pennington presented mind-blanking glittering generalities when it was obvious that the multiplying of arbitrary rules not only constituted unconstitutional takings; they were poised to ensure that ownership of STRs would be the privilege of those with enough leisure time to figure things out or rich enough to retain somebody to do it for them.
The planning board was not expecting to have so many people wishing to give them a piece of their mind that they had to open a second overflow room. Board member John Noor said he’d been serving two years, and the most people he’d seen show up to comment before was about six. The board will hold some more meetings on the subject, but they had the wrong date for one, and the venues are yet to be decided.
Members of the public were not impressed with the board’s lack of preparation. David Plyler, among others, thought it was no coincidence that the “research” and “drafting and review” phases of this module had already been completed without any input from stakeholders. The board, he said, appeared to be ramrodding. Unfortunately, staff’s decision to fight this strawman was going to do nothing to resolve the affordable housing crisis.
What follows is a boil-down of several good points made during public comment. Speakers included representatives of Yonder Luxury Vacation Rentals and Greybeard Rentals, as well as people with day jobs who rented a single house. They said short-term rental management was more fluid than the county was accepting. People might live in their house part of the year and rent it out short- or long-term, depending on the market. This, they said, caused staff to overestimate the number of STRs in the county. They had their own reports.
The reports also indicated that STRs had practically no effect on affordable housing in Buncombe County. The Dogwood Trust study, in fact, did not mention STRs in their nine recommendations for increasing affordable housing stock. Most units, after all, were not affordable. Three speakers independently arrived at an average sales price for Buncombe County’s STR homes of around $850,000. The median selling price for all homes in the area is nearly half that. STR regulations designed at increasing affordable housing stock would then have to target struggling families renting as a side hustle, not megacorporations.
Owning and operating STRs was a business. It created jobs—not just desk jobs, but jobs for “the guy who filters pools.” There was a perception that most STRs were run by corporations, but most of these corporations are LLCs created by families to manage the taxes and other legal obligations of renting a single home. Operating STRs not only gave people added income to keep their homes and provide for their families, they also added to the tax base, sales tax revenues, and TDA funds.
STRs provided affordable lodging in this tourist destination. They were not just for bon vivants but for large families that might otherwise have to rent three hotel rooms. They serve the gig economy, so construction crews, traveling nurses, trainers, and researchers don’t have to live in a hotel for a month. If STRs were taken off the market, there would be a shortage of lodging, raising prices enough to displace tourists. Already, Brevard and Black Mountain have experienced a shortage of guest rooms.
Wilmington had been sued for trying to “require registration or permits as a condition of the act of renting.” So, the county has concluded that permits issued for STR zoning were substantially different from registrations for the act of renting. Speakers were not so sure. One asked if the county “wants to be the legal guinea pig.” He said Wilmington had spent over $750,000 in attorney fees “to fight and lose.”
After hearing from several opponents to the changes, Chair Nancy Waldrop opened the floor to supporters. All came from Emma, and all but one spoke through an interpreter. They talked about working hard and not being able to afford anything better than a mobile home with half their income. Now, STR corporations were buying up the mobile homes in their community, and they wanted it stopped.