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Zapp: Let’s take another view of short-term rentals

As a seven-year resident of the Historic District, a three-year licensed short-term vacation rental, or STVR, owner, a retired economist, and a new Downtown Neighborhood Association Board member, I wish to offer an alternative method to achieve the goal of limiting (and reducing) the proliferation of STVRs which will be less divisive and more legally sound than one concept I have heard is being proposed. Full disclosure: we sold our STVR June 20.

The concept supported by the DNA to limit new STVRs to those which are owner occupied is arbitrary (and therefore likely not to survive a legal challenge). I have often asked Bridget Lidy from the city of Savannah if the complaints and citations about STVRs can be correlated to the form of ownership or management. Her answer has consistently been no. Given a lack of data supporting one form of ownership over others, a new regulation which discriminates against current properties which have operated fully within city regulations would fail the requirement of treating everyone equally under the law.

The view that an owner-occupied STVR somehow better serves the neighborhood than one where the owner lives a few houses or blocks away also seems to fail a practical test. Would the city require that the owner always be on the property the time guests visit? If not, we would face what a recent New Yorker article described in the Big Apple: people share several properties and move from one to another depending on the customer demand or stay only one night with guests who then are alone the rest of the time.

As I understand the proposal, a licensed property could remain a STVR as long as the current owner retains ownership. If sold to a new owner, then the new owner would have 12 months to obtain a license. What happens when that second owner sells the property? What would happen if the STVR is owned by a corporation? If one of several shareholders sells shares to a different person, does this mean that the property has a new owner and the license is canceled? If not, then current owners could circumvent the intent of the regulation by creating a corporation to own their properties. Corporate shares could be sold without losing the STVR license.

Another proposal would apply density limits (the percent of units in a neighborhood or census district). The problem is that some parts of the Historic District already have STVR densities which are higher than what is proposed. How would the city remove a license from a property owner who has operated a STVR legally in order to reduce that neighborhood’s STVR density?

Alderman Bill Durrence has proposed a 90-day moratorium on the issuance of new STVR licenses to give the city more time to develop an effective approach to preserving the neighborhood essence of the Landmark District. Many property owners in the district, fearing the loss of an opportunity to operate a STVR, applied for new licenses before Durrence’s proposal could be implemented. Lawyers representing property management firms have proposed that all STVRs be required to be run by a professional management company. Why require that STVRs be managed by a management company when there is no evidence that they do a better job than owners who manage their property? This makes clear that these firms represent their own financial interests, not those of property owners.

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Other ideas

Instead, we should grandparent properties (and not owners) which have been operating properly and not issue any new licenses, period. This would immediately stop the growth of these businesses and give us time to develop a longer term approach. Over time, the number of STVRs will decline as new owners decide to make alternative use of their properties. This approach would easily survive any legal disputes and is a compromise between people who offer more disruptive or impractical ideas.

Two additional changes seem appropriate. First, while not approving new licenses in the Landmark District, the city should open up surrounding neighborhoods for this growing tourist business. Increasing numbers of visitors seem to prefer staying in a living community instead of hotels which are sadly uniform across the country. Strict density limits, designed to protect the residential character of our neighborhoods, are much easier to establish where these businesses have not been allowed previously than where businesses have been licensed for three years.

Second, we need to focus on attracting the quality of visitors which our residents would be more likely to welcome to their neighborhoods. A local hotel owner recently reported at a meeting with consultants tasked with recommending a tourism management plan for the city that he has seen a significant reduction in the age of his visitors this decade. The younger clients seem more attracted by opportunities to party than to appreciate our history and culture. His rooms have suffered the consequences.

For three years we required a minimal age for guests of 25 years, unless they were accompanied by their parents or guardians. Though the average age of our visitors probably was closer to 50, this age requirement helped communicate our expectations for behavior in our neighborhood. While some forms of age discrimination are not legal, rental car agencies have not had any trouble requiring that their renters be at least 25. Their discrimination has been supported by evidence of behavior, as would be the case in STVRs.

The goal of attracting guests who seek more than alcoholic experiences is shared by virtually everyone in the District, even many bar owners who suffer more than anyone from drunken behavior. Our marketing efforts, highly successful in numerical terms, have stressed our city’s rich history, livable neighborhoods, our music, art and food cultures, and the warmth of our people and climate.

Having moved from Minnesota, I was disappointed by the dearth of opportunities here to learn about life for both African Americans and whites during 110 years of slavery and another 100 years of segregation. Savannah, being one of the key entry ports of slave ships and a center of religious justification for these social structures, could become the prime location to learn about this experience.

This new focus could help our communities understand each other better and attract more visitors we would like to welcome to our city.

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Kenneth Zapp, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus at Metropolitan State University, and a mentor at SCORE Savannah.

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