By Leon Galis
The day after the Athens-Clarke County Commission passed unanimously a package of new regulations for short-term rentals, HB 1121 cropped up in the Georgia General Assembly. It does two things both targeting Athens. First, it repeals the two years that our regulations give short-term rental owners to convert from non-conforming to conforming operation.
Second, and unbelievably, it requires that any complaints against short-term rentals be made in writing and on oath. I’ve emailed Rep. Houston Gaines, copying the other twenty members of the Governmental Affairs Committee. I hope other readers will weigh in on this. Names and email addresses of the committee members are here.
I’m writing to you in your capacity as a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee to which HB 1121 has been assigned. I’m an Athens native and have lived at my present address since April of 2001.
According to communications I’ve seen between Airbnb and its hosts, the company urges its operators to support this bill because it would prevent them from “losing their right to host if their local government creates new regulations or changes existing laws relating to hosting.”
There are several things about the recently enacted Athens-Clarke County ordinance regulating short-term rentals (STRs) that the company and many of its local owners are getting wrong. You don’t have time to read through the full catalogue, so I’ll concentrate on only the key ones.
Currently operating STRs have no right to be operating in Athens-Clarke County’s single-family (RS) zones. According to our Planning Department, the only “by right” use permitted in the RS zones is single-family residency. Non-residential STRs operate there only because they appeared after our zoning code was enacted. Prior to February 6th, 2024, the code has been “silent” regarding them. They’ve never been authorized by any affirmative government action. So non-residential STRs are a legal non-conforming use, not a “by right” use.
Under our municipal code, the government has a positive duty to convert legal non-conforming uses to conforming uses wherever feasible. That’s the basis for the two-year sunset provision HB 1121 would override. Contrary to what Airbnb is telling its hosts, the sunset provision would permit the government to carry out its mandate to convert non-conforming to conforming uses without injury to any owner whose property was so converted. All it would take for an owner of a non-residential STR to continue operating in a single-family neighborhoods under the new regulations is to apply for a permit for a home occupation. The permit would be issued either to the property’s owner or to a renter with the owner’s written permission. Under current home occupation regulations which would continue in force, the primary resident, whether owner or renter, could even hire a manager to relieve him or her of the burden of day-to-day operations. What existing STRs would enjoy under the newly enacted regulations is a right to operate by virtue of an affirmative government action, the same right currently enjoyed by dog groomers and hair stylists operating as home occupations in single-family neighborhoods.
As for non-residential, strictly commercial STRs operating outside single-family zones, their operators would hardly notice the newsregulations when they take effect.
The provision of HB 1121 that clearly exposes its destructive potential is at lines 95-98 requiring that all complaints against STRs “shall be in writing and made under oath….”
The first obligation of any government is public safety, not the comfort and convenience of Airbnb and its hosts. But this provision would compromise the ability of code enforcement agencies and police departments to meet that high obligation to all under their jurisdiction. At the same time, it would endanger residents wanting to lodge reasonable complaints against offending STRs.
When our enforcement officers get a call about a disturbance anywhere, they have to see it in progress, identifying offenders in order to know how to prosecute it. Or if not in progress, at a minimum they have to respond to the site and interview witnesses and participants to determine if they can collect enough evidence to prosecute. They can’t do that if they have to wait for a resident to write out the complaint and affirm whatever oath is required.
Moreover, this provision would put complaining residents at risk of bodily harm if they attempted to confront participants and witnesses at a disturbance so they could collect enough evidence to file a written complaint. That’s what we have trained law enforcement personnel for. Untrained residents inserting themselves into a disturbance would be a tragedy waiting to happen.
Because this provision obstructs enforcement agencies in the normal performance of their sworn duties and calls on residents to risk their personal safety, it essentially immunizes STR owners, and only STR owners, from the accountability that everybody else is subject to.
That raises the obvious question why STR owners think theyalone are entitled to that liability shield. If it’s because they think they’re being inundated by baseless, harassing complaints, that can only be because residents regard them as unwelcome intruders in the neighborhoods where they operate. That’s especially true of non-residential, strictly commercial operations in neighborhoods zoned for single-family residency.
But instead of leaving it to local governments to work out for themselves the best mutually beneficial accommodations they can between residents and STR owners, this bill, with or without this particular provision, just locks into place, to everybody’s disadvantage, the conflicts and climate of suspicion that gave rise to it.
Therefore, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to vote against sending this bill to the House floor.