Vaunted Internet speeds mean little in Chattanooga as its city council throws up a wall against a tide of visitors from the global sharing economy that seems just too much to handle.
City officials on Tuesday raise up a Beijing wall around short-term vacation rental portion of the Internet economy, spoiling the prospects of potentially hundreds of families who want to capitalize on the arrival of visitors to the River City through Web portals such as Airbnb.
By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 92.7 FM
The council vote is 7 to 1 to ban private commercial relationships among homeowners and out-of-town guests in large parts of the city. Council member Jerry Mitchell is absent.
But city council creates a large district encompassing most of the city in which it plans a show of leniently in its proprietorship of the people and their property. Homeowners in the district will be able to beg leave to put their homes up for rent in the high-end networks that are bringing global visitors here with a warm personal welcome.
The only council member to suggest the map is an ugly scar across the face of Chattanooga is Demetrus Coonrod, indicating plan creates an illiberal economic discrimination.
“I wanted additional communities to be included,” she says. Asked if she objects to the map because it excludes people from the profitable use of their homes, she says, “Yes, absolutely.
The process of petitioning for rezoning to R3 or R4 should have been let alone, she says.
“It could have just stayed like it’s been. [Residents] just go to planning, apply to be rezoned, then they go out to the community and if anybody’s opposed, they just come, say, ‘Hey, we don’t want this to happening in our community.’ But, instead, that process has been removed with the overlay.”
An alternative explanation for her solitary no vote from an Airbnb activist: Mrs. Coonrod got much negative feedback from constituents about short-term vacation rentals.
Some of the heat of conflict focuses on pleas by three private schools to create 1,000 foot exclusion zones within the approved rental District, ostensibly to keep shady characters in Airbnb rentals from raping schoolgirls or stealing textbooks while students dawdle at recess. This idea gains no traction legislatively. Also rejected is an amendment allowing rentals on lots 10 acres and larger.
Two people in the radio business speak at the council meeting. The first is Bill Lockhart, a newscaster and with his wife an Airbnb host in the Southside who favors the ordinance. He says ask pointed questions of proposed guests from around the world and does not consider “foolishness or malarkey” from among them, but simply rents out a spare bedroom to pay his medical deductible. He resents the arguments that Airbnb hosts have rapists and malefactors among their guests, arguing that such claims disparage rental hosts who are innocent and full of goodwill.
The second is this writer, who says the ordinance is unjust because it is arbitrary and capricious in its treatment of homeowners, with neighbors across a street treated unequally, one allowed to do Airbnb, the other forbidden it. Raising legal barriers to the sharing economy violates the Gig City ideal, he insists in comments that later are described as “libertarian.” No one else in the room appears to have a fundamental objection to the rule on liberty or legal grounds.
Hosts hailed as ambassadors
Speaking up in favor of the plan are Blake and Lexi Bozarth in Mrs. Coonrod’s district, No. 9. They argue that Airbnb raises connectivity with people in the outside world, and raise property value.
“Airbnb is good for our city on the whole,” Mr. Bozarth says. “Hosts are truly the best ambassadors for the city you could ask for. They make people feel welcome, send them to local places. We champion how truly incredible this city truly is. And we our best to assure our visitors receive an authentic Chattanooga experience.”
Airbnb networks improve property values, he asserts. “Properties are much better cared for, along with much fewer negative issues than your average traditional rental, and even some of your average homes. This is objectively true. *** If a short-term rental is not kept up and kept looking nice and cute, nobody is going to stay there, your reviews are going to be bad and you are out of business.”
Echoing Mr. Lockhart, the Bozarth’s reject efforts by spokesmen from St. Nichols and GPS schools to impugn the character of visitors. Rape or murder can happen in hotels and long-term traditional rentals, and there’s no way to legislate against, Mr. Bozarth says. “Please don’t be pressured by nonunique or fear-based reasoning. The hosts in this room have hosted thousands of people, and many of those folks actually move to the city. It’s really great for our city.”
Mrs. Bozarth hosted 200 people and enjoys the money that helped the couple get through financial hard times. She is expecting a child and wants to be able to be a stay-at-home mom with an income who is helping build a sense of community. Some of her best friends today were once strangers — once they’d been Airbnb customers. Now these people are fellow residents, “and we keep up with each other.” The Highland Park couple attributes to short-term vacation rentals to elevating the quality of property in that part of town.
Glenwood ‘chooses’ to stay stagnant
Two men in the audience are on opposite sides of the question of damaging social controls on private property. Ezra Harris from the Woodmore Neighborhood Association is in Russell Gilbert’s district. But he says that by Mr. Gilbert’s decision, Glenwood (in Mrs. Coonrod’s district) excludes itself from danger.
“We were concerned about what it would bring into our neighborhood,” he says. Airbnb “will bring into our neighborhood is unwanted crime, unwanted people that will come into the neighborhood, these people we just don’t know; and we don’t want to take that chance on letting people come in. That’s one reason we opted out of it. *** Nobody knows who these people are. We would rather have our neighborhood safe, and sound and protected because having strangers coming in and out it could lead to prostitution, it could lead to other crimes or anything.”
As against this view favoring isolationism based on fear of strangers is John Muller, a moviemaker who lives in Glenwood, Mrs. Coonrod’s district, but who is gone months at a time in Georgia. A decision by one or two people in the Glenwood association decided to urge rejection of Airbnb, says this resident who has no Airbnb business interests. “This is going to be detrimental to the growth of Glenwood. Other neighborhoods around us will get this type of business. There are a lot of homes with great character just like Highland Park, and this will hold us back.”
Airbnb causes people to invest more in their properties, which will cause yet other people to upgrade their houses, as well, Mr. Muller says. “Airbnb will help revitalize the neighborhood and raise its quality. It makes no sense for a district in which some residents aren’t of “the greatest caliber citizen” to act to exclude visits by educated, professional strangers with means who are visiting the city and staying a week. “This will keep our neighborhood from growing. This mindset will keep our neighborhood from doing anything.”
Hosts seek to ‘become legal’
Olivia Karavatakis runs a private Airbnb Facebook group for a growing number of hosts in a market that pulled in F$2.5 million in 2016. She hopes Airbnb members outside the district will be able to come together to bring pressure for more lawful Airbnbs.
“At least we are moving forward in a positive direction, all in all,” she says afterwards, “so that more people can become legal. Because all of this is going on, no one wants to get complaint because no one knew what was going to happen, and so at least we have an avenue for getting complaint, and then the next step is expanding the map and editing some of the language in the ordinance to allow hosts more flexibility.”
Miss Karavatakis says Mrs. Coonrod in District 9 voted no because she reached out to residents and they generally told her they oppose Airbnbs in private dwellings. She rejects Mr. Muller’s assertion that neighborhood groups shanghaied the process.
Erskine Oglesby, a new council member, votes for the measure. Asked about the shunned of Glenwood and elsewhere barred from profiting from their investment, he says: “I wouldn’t quite say they are barred, but within a year we are going to re-evaluate the program and they will have an opportunity at that point to become part of it. But we’ve spent quite a bit of time — actually, a year before I even came on board — discussing this. We’ll have a chance to look at it after a year and see what happens.” He is certain the district size will include more people and will be expanded. “Absolutely.”