The South Burlington City Council last week held a first reading of an ordinance to create a registry of all rental units in the city, which proponents of the law say would ensure proper safety protocols are being met while adding regulations onto short-term rental units.
Last week’s meeting was the sixth time that city fire Chief Steven Locke was before the council, making tweaks and discussing the specifics of the ordinance. It’s been a year since the law was first presented to the council.
According to city council chair Helen Riehle said, the ordinance since its inception has sought a dual function: to try and make sure safety standards in an apartment anywhere in the city are up to code, and to ensure “that people are in a safe place when they rent.”
Most municipalities do that by setting requirements when new buildings or structures are permitted. This ordinance, by collecting fees from property owners in the city, would, over time, self-fund an office and dedicated staff in the fire department for an inspection cycle.
Currently, the city’s fire department is responsible for inspection of rental housing properties, but only does so when a tenant sends a complaint. The department has received only 55 complaints over the last two years.
If passed into law this month, South Burlington would join Burlington, Winooski, and St. Albans in creating a rental registry. Essex Junction is also currently in the process of passing a rental registry into law, according to reporting from the Essex Reporter.
It comes as planning officials project the city will soon shift away from single-family suburban housing and be primarily composed of multi-family housing units. By passing the ordinance, the city would have a better grasp of what its housing stock looks like.
“My son rented a college house in South Burlington for a year, and the conditions there were quite despicable,” city councilor Tim Barritt said. “And there was nothing that he or I could do.”
Barritt said that’s because there was nobody his son could complain to.
“In Burlington, it’s entirely the opposite case,” he said. “They’re the ones that (mandated) that all their older housing stock had to have hardwired, interconnected smoke detectors, and they saved lives, especially with a carbon monoxide detector as well.”
The second function of the ordinance would be to rein in short-term rental units in the city. Residents have told councilors that these rental units were having negative impacts on the character of their neighborhoods.
Data from March showed 75 total active rentals in the city. About 60 of those were considered whole units — entire homes rented out as opposed to renting a room — and of those, about 45 were single-family homes and about 15 were units in a larger building. The number of available short-term rentals has increased by nearly 25 percent over a three-year period.
The city, in its crafting of the law, also sought to curtail the negative effects that the short-term market may be having on the overall housing market.
The only way South Burlington could affect the stubborn vacancy rate, which has remained at less than 1 percent in Chittenden County for several years, is by “retracting those houses that are owned by another entity in neighborhoods and being rented out in a very short-term time and put them back into the housing stock for long term rentals,” Barritt said.
Residents have repeatedly expressed concerns as the ordinance has been crafted. South Burlington resident Ryan Doyle, during the meeting last week, said that, because of the fees imposed on property owners, the ordinance would create “an expensive new tax on renters.”
In the past year, significant tweaks have been made to soften the blow for short-term rental owners, using companies like Airbnb and VRBO to list their homes. The council heard from dozens of residents worried that the new regulations would impact their ability to earn an income from their properties.
The city in November moved to exempt current short-term rentals in the city until the property is sold. The ordinance would also allow for short-term rentals in owner-occupied housing only, or housing where the owner resides for at least six months and one day.
If passed into law at its Feb. 20 meeting, the city could begin collecting fees as soon as April 1, Locke said.